Posts Tagged war on terror

Creating a world without torture: September in review

We round-up our blogs from September and don’t forget to keep checking the blog in the coming weeks for more. Click here to visit our Facebook page, and here to visit our Twitter feed.

War did not prepare Vaja for torture in a Georgian prison

Lying on the eastern Black Sea coast, lying north-west of Georgia and the Caucasus mountains and south-west of Russia, there is an area which does not exist as a country to many except to most of those who live there.

Vaja today

On 27 September 1993, 21 years ago this month, a Russia-backed campaign began to displace and kill Georgian settlers in the Abkhazia region following the takeover of the now-capital city of Sukhumi. Approximately 250,000 Georgians were displaced and 30,000 were killed in the ethnic cleansing campaign across the region.

To mark the occasion and to remember the atrocities that took place, the IRCT published a story on Vaja – a former soldier in the war whose trauma led to drug abuse which, in turn, led to imprisonment and torture.

Read his harrowing ordeal here.

Torture victims are victims of 9/11 too

An otherwise calm New York view as the World Trade Centre towers burn in the background following the impact of two hijacked commercial airliners (courtesy of  Sean Donohue, used via Flickr creative commons licence)

An otherwise calm New York view as the World Trade Centre towers burn in the background following the impact of two hijacked commercial airliners (courtesy of Sean Donohue, used via Flickr creative commons licence)

At the start of September, we reflected on how much of a trigger for the War on Terror the events on September 11th 2001 were, and how the prevailing treatment of terror suspects must not be forgotten even amidst the sadness of the memorial day.

While not direct victims, thousands of complaints, pictures, stories and court cases regarding torture have been seen and heard since 9/11 as the US continues to fight terrorism.

So while 9/11 is rightly marked by remembrance for the dead and the profound impact it had on America, we took time to also remember those who suffered, and are still suffering, from torture perpetrated under the guise of national security.


IRCT launches 26 June Global Report

DropshadowhigherqualityFollowing a successful 2014 campaign, the IRCT is launching the 26 June Global Report, providing a summary of this year’s commemorations and an insight into the many events and activities organised by torture rehabilitation centres and other organisations around the world.

A total of 110 organisations from 63 countries joined the campaign, making it the biggest 26 June campaign yet. Five years ago, that number stood at 45. The report includes an event summary from each organisation as well as colourful photographs throughout, giving the reader a chance to visualise some of the 26 June activities.

This year’s theme “Fighting Impunity” was emphasised through peaceful demonstrations, press conferences, concerts, radio shows, panel discussions and many other events. Reaching thousands of people across the globe, the IRCT and the participating organisations sent a message of support to survivors of torture and a clear call to end impunity.

Read more and the report itself here.

European IRCT members meet to discuss regional policy

Second story from the IRCT focuses on the upcoming European Regional Meeting in Zagreb, Croatia.

The topics under discussion in the meeting will include Croatia’s obligations on providing rehabilitation for torture survivors and the regional priorities for the delivery of rehabilitation services in the region. The definition of holistic rehabilitation that underpins General Comment 3 to the UN Convention against Torture, will be debated, as will the question of survivors’ involvement in the rehabilitation process.

Read more here.

Story from a Nigerian survivor of torture only reaffirms claims in Amnesty’s new torture report


Nigerian police unit

Whether targeting a Boko Haram suspect, an alleged criminal, a sex worker, or simply part of a minority group, a new Amnesty International report highlights how torture is endemic in Nigeria as the police and military routinely use it to extract confessions, extort money and to break the will of detainees.

To illustrate the prevalence of torture, the effects of torture and the journey through rehabilitation necessary in just one case, we turn to the story of Leo – a 27-year-old concert-goer who, after happening to stumble across the scene of an earlier robbery in the city of Nsukka, experienced four-months of suffering as the police tortured him repeatedly for a crime which he was not even part of.

The invisible crime of torture in Colombia

5We welcomed guest blogger Hannah Matthews to the team this month who provided an unflinching account of the state of torture in Colombia in the present day.

To read her observations on the topic just click this link.



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Torture victims are victims of 9/11 too

Yesterday marked 13 years since the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001, one of the worst terrorist attacks in history, killing 2,996 people and injuring over 6,000.

Every year 9/11 is, and will continue to be, remembered for the sadness of the day. Families lost their loved ones; the lives of many people collapsed with the towers; and the fabric of the city was changed forever.

But what should not be forgotten is the change 9/11 inspired in the realm of national security. The attacks prompted a refocus, not just on the security of airports and planes, but on the protection of a nation.

September 11th should also be remembered as the catalyst for change in national security and anti-terror thinking and practice. Efforts to stamp out terrorism across the globe escalated, not just with political rhetoric but also with military action.

An otherwise calm New York view as the World Trade Centre towers burn in the background following the impact of two hijacked commercial airliners (courtesy of  Sean Donohue, used via Flickr creative commons licence)

An otherwise calm New York view as the World Trade Center towers burn in the background following the impact of two hijacked commercial airliners (courtesy of Sean Donohue, used via Flickr creative commons licence)

All of this came as part of the so-called War on Terror, an anti-terrorist military-backed campaign primarily spearheaded by the United States and the United Kingdom in Afghanistan, initially to eliminate Al Qaeda but later becoming an umbrella term encompassing the spread of its scope across Iraq, northern Pakistan and other areas of the Middle East.

Although U.S. officials no longer use the term, this campaign still rages today. And with this comes torture. Since 9/11, terrorist attacks have risen and, as more suspects are detained, torture incidences have risen too.

The September 11 attacks and the War on Terror that followed led to the ill-treatment of many suspected terrorist detainees – something President Obama acknowledged by stating that the United States military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “crossed the line” in the post-9/11 context by torturing many suspects.

The upcoming CIA torture report, for example, details how suspects were intentionally tortured for information.

Protestors in Trafalgar Square as part of the London Guantanamo Campaign's 26 June protest against the camp

Protestors in Trafalgar Square as part of the London Guantanamo Campaign’s 26 June protest against the camp

Leaks from the report, four-years in the making, show how the CIA misled policymakers about the inhumane nature of their torture techniques primarily at CIA ‘Black Sites’ by rebranding torture as ‘enhanced interrogation’. The seriousness of the torture allegations was then routinely downplayed to the media and politicians. The CIA also relied extensively on outside contractors, such as now-infamous psychologist James Mitchell, to devise horrific torture techniques designed to simply cause harm.

The Committee concluded, as noted back in July 2014, that the torture techniques were unnecessary and yielded “no critical intelligence on terror plots”.

The practices described in the CIA torture report were banned from 2009 alongside the closing of the Black Sites. Despite this, the CIA’s rampant torture campaign inflicted pain and suffering “to the point of death” in many cases, causing long-term damage to the victims which has yet to be addressed. Some of the victims even died from the torture.

While much of the blame for the human rights abuses has been placed on the Bush administration, Obama’s presidency has ensured a culture of impunity has prevailed. The lengthy political process to release this report has meant many victims have been forced to remain silent for years as their experiences have yet to be heard or believed. The continual leaking of different pieces of the CIA report also detracts focus from the overall picture: the U.S. is flagrantly using torture in its anti-terror arsenal yet those who commissioned the torture still remain untouched.

Also impunity will always be ensured all the time figureheads leading the torture programme are still in power. For example, the current CIA director, John Brennan, is still in office and was highly complicit with the torture focus under the Bush administration. Guards – and the administration as a whole – at camps such as Guantanamo Bay remain in place and functional, albeit scaled back.

Post-9/11 torture was not restricted to the CIA though and, as noted, the U.S. military played a large part.

One of the most haunting and famous pictures from Abu Ghraib

One of the most haunting and famous pictures from Abu Ghraib

While not strictly under the War on Terror banner, from 2003 to early 2004 U.S. Military Police personnel from the U.S. Army and the CIA committed, and photographed, human rights violations against prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq.

The pictures are some of the most famous of the 21st century, stirring chilling recollections of a time when vigilantism – mainly perpetrated by outside contracted soldiers from the Blackwater company – ruled the conflict.

But the pictures revealed at the time were only a small batch. Now there is further pressure on the U.S. to disclose the full extent of its activities with one US judge calling on the administration to release the full batch of 2,000 pictures.

All this is the result of just one day in September 2001 – a horrifying, heartbreaking day which will forever remain in human memory as one of the worst attacks on a population.

But the activities following 9/11 gave state officials across the globe an excuse to torture. In many of these cases the perpetrators will never be brought to justice.

So while 9/11 is rightly marked by remembrance for the dead and the profound impact it had on America, take time to also remember those who suffered, and are still suffering, from torture perpetrated under the guise of national security.

Torture victims are victims of 9/11 too.

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“We tortured some folks”: Obama’s troubling remark shows apathy to US torture will reveal

It is a surprisingly careless, candid admission to make: “We tortured some folks”. But President Obama said just this in a news conference on Friday, in one blunt line confirming what many suspected the CIA had carried out since September 11th: there was torture of alleged terror suspects.

Protesters dressed as Guantánamo detainees assembled in front of the White House to protest President Barack Obama's nomination of John Brennan for director of the CIA. (Courtesy Justin Norman, used under Flickr creative commons licence)

Protesters dressed as Guantánamo detainees assembled in front of the White House to protest President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Brennan for director of the CIA in 2013. (Courtesy Justin Norman, used under Flickr creative commons licence)

Yet the admission does not accuse anyone in particular of wrongdoing and, if the Republican support of the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques is anything to go by, perhaps no one will ultimately take the fall.

According to the Guardian the CIA torture report, which may be released as early as this week, shows there is a difference in opinion in the US government as to what constitutes torture and how useful torture is – a needless debate which rages on despite human rights organisations around the globe constantly remind governments that torture never works and is never justified, humane or acceptable. Democrat representatives have long been critical of the CIA’s enhanced torture techniques while Republicans have argued these action, while against human rights, helped national security and aided the takedown of Osama Bin Laden.

Whichever view you take though Obama’s phrase “we tortured some folks” is perhaps the most troubling quote in this debacle. Either Obama is understating the full effects of the report – a report which is expected to showcase some detailed descriptions of the primarily Bush-era torture – or he has carelessly brushed aside the crime of torture, its effects, the victims and the importance of preventing this international crime in the future.

This remark alone is not enough to judge. However Obama’s public support of CIA Director John Brennan and remarks stating that it is important “not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job [the CIA] had” certainly adds credence to the cynical view that torture is being ignored by the US.

One final remark from Obama: “A lot of those folks [in the CIA] were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”

Torture is not so much as being ignored, but its implementation is being justified too.

The details of the CIA report are still under wraps and only upon release will we really see the full extent of the CIA. But let’s not forget this: the United States is a party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified in October 1990.

The US often laud their own human rights superiority, quickly condemning other nations who break their obligations. And perhaps, after the release of the CIA report, their criticisms will turn inwards as the country strongly reflects on the crime committed in the name of national security.

Then and now the US, its government and its people have human rights obligations to adhere to, particularly surrounding the prevention and prohibition of torture.

But with Obama’s remarks, can you really tell?

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Digging for truth – Journalist Ian Cobain speaks about reporting on torture

Ian Cobain (photo provided free of charge)

Ian Cobain

If you define Britain by its oft lauded stereotypes, one may assume a peaceful, upstanding nation which obeys rules, regulations and notions of fair play. Yet for 30 years Ian Cobain has dedicated his life to exposing the secrets, the lies, the inconvenient truths often buried deep beneath a British façade.

An investigative journalist with the Guardian newspaper, his reports into the UK’s counter-terrorism practices since 9/11 have won a number of major awards including the Martha Gellhorn Prize and the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism, as well as a range of Amnesty International awards.

In 2012 Ian published his first book, Cruel Britannia, which analysed how the British government has repeatedly and systematically resorted to torture, through years of British colonial rule, to World War Two and to the War on Terror.

And while we may not like to think of it, torture is something which Ian believes is still practiced by the UK and other Western countries often perceived to be upholding human rights.

“I’m still shocked by some of the matters I discover. But I’m no longer surprised,” says Ian.

“After 9/11, I knew by January 2002 that the US was mistreating its prisoners. Photographs showing shackled men, in gloves, ear defenders and blacked-out goggles, being dragged across the ground at Guantanamo, were published by the US military. That was a pretty good clue [that torture of prisoners was happening].

“The same month, while I was in Kabul, Red Cross officials told me that prisoners were being tortured at Kandahar. I was terribly shocked. The British government and its intelligence agencies claim they didn’t discover this for years. What nonsense.”

A report on the condition of detainees in 2012, ten years after Ian learned of torture in Kandahar, still lists the southern city in Afghanistan as one of the areas where detained individuals are routinely mistreated by officials.

“At the time it was difficult to comprehend that the British government would draw up policies that resulted in the torture, but that’s what happened,” Ian explains.

“It took me a while longer to understand the level of UK support and participation in the rendition programme. More time made me realise that the UK was complicit in kidnappings and torture during operations in which the US barely played any part.”

For Ian, the ill-treatment by the UK of those in detention, particularly in situations of conflict, is nothing new.

“British military processed and mistreated their prisoners in Northern Ireland in 1971 in precisely the same way that another generation of the British military was doing it in Basra in 2003,” says Ian.

“Authorities use it to intimidate, to coerce, to humiliate, to extract information, or to obtain so-called confessions. But it also creates reservoirs of hatred that don’t run dry for generations. And nobody can quite predict what will flow from those reservoirs.”

Hostility though is something that Ian has felt from authoritative figures, many of whom try to deter his work and the work of human rights defenders across the globe.

“Some people are hostile, but I don’t really care. I’ve been threatened once or twice, by people in ‘authority’, but I’m not in any danger,” he says.

Documenting and exposing torture is a sensitive issue for everyone involved. While the journalist or human rights activist exposing a case of torture might be in danger of reprisals, the survivor risks that and risks re-traumatisation by retelling the experience. However, documentation enables victims to prove the veracity of their allegations and thus increases the pressure on perpetrators to fulfill their obligations under international law. Torture is hardly a positive representation of a group or a country, particularly one like the UK.

Rehabilitating victims of torture, helping them recover from the trauma and become advocates for justice and truth, is one pivotal way to change views on torture in everyone’s minds.

“A few prosecutions of people in powerful positions might concentrate the minds of the next generation,” Ian adds.

Click the links in the text to some of Ian’s articles. For more information on Ian and his work click the link here or follow Ian on Twitter (@IanCobain).

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Using forensic evidence against torture: case of Ali Aarrass

Editor’s Note: A French version of this blog is available for download here (Une version française de ce blog est disponible en téléchargement ici) [DOC]

Ali Aarrass is a Belgian-Moroccan citizen currently held in a Moroccan prison, where he is regularly subjected to various forms of inhuman and degrading treatment.

His ordeal began in 2006 when he was arrested for the first time in Spain for smuggling weapons into Morocco. Released on bail, he was arrested for the second time in April 2008 by Spanish authorities, following an international arrest warrant issued by Morocco.

That time, he was accused of being involved in terrorist activities. This accusation was based on a list of suspects provided by Abdelkader Belliraj after being subject to torture. However, after a two-year investigation, the Spanish court found no evidence proving that Ali was guilty. Yet, Moroccan authorities still insisted on his extradition.

In a preliminary decision of the UN Human Rights Committee issued in late 2010,  the Committee requested that Spain not extradite Ali before any further consideration was taken on his case because of the high risk that he would be facing torture in Morocco.

Despite a formal recognition of his innocence by the Spanish justice system and a high risk of being subjected to torture if extradited to Morocco, Spain proceeded with his extradition on 14 December 2010.

The feared violation of Ali’s fundamental rights unfortunately immediately occurred. Ali was secretly detained and interrogated under torture by Moroccan police. Therefore, he was not only a victim of torture, but also a victim of a serious violation of his procedural rights.

The use of forced confessions obtained under torture was the only legal basis for his conviction of being involved in terrorist activities.

Ali reported being subjected to torture during his detention by Moroccan police and referred his case to the UN Committee against Torture. Thereafter, the Moroccan authorities ordered a medical examination, which was conducted by three Moroccan doctors. While their assessment did not confirm the allegations of torture, it strongly questioned the credibility of the original medical. Indeed, the medical report does not seem to rely on any standard derived from international law, such as the Istanbul Protocol, the common name for the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, an internationally recognised standard for conducting a forensic medical and psychological examination in a torture case.

Facing this situation, Ali’s lawyers — members of a Belgian human rights organisation “Jus Cogens” – called for the IRCT’s support in early 2011, in the context of the project “Forensic Evidence Against Torture” (FEAT).

This liaison between lawyers and an independent medical expert, established by the IRCT, has enabled a thorough and substantial criticism of the three-page Moroccan expertise within a very short time frame. Thus, lawyers have been able to use this “counter-report” before national and international courts.

The forensic expert was selected among the members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) established by the IRCT in 2008. This group is composed of highly-qualified health professionals trained on the medical procedures contained in the Istanbul Protocol.

The forensic expert concluded that the report ordered by the Moroccan Attorney General did not meet the requirements of the Istanbul Protocol. Indeed, he notes that the report only contains very basic information on Ali’s medical state, without bringing any kind of psychological and psychiatric assessment to the analysis.

The expert therefore recommended that a new medical and psychological examination should be conducted in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol and by a doctor experienced in the field of health expertise on victims of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.

In order to give more weight and credibility to the counter-report issued by the IFEG expert, a second counter-report was carried out by a Moroccan doctor, also member of the IFEG. He confirmed the conclusion of the first international expert stating that the report conducted under the Attorney General’s orders was not in conformity with the Istanbul Protocol.

Yet the submission of forensic expert reports and statements in compliance with the Istanbul Protocol is sometimes simply not enough. It is up to the courts to recognise them as evidence.

The case of Ali Aarrass is an obvious example. Despite the production of two independent expert statements by international independent health professionals, the Moroccan courts effectively ignored allegations of torture at all stages of the trial.

Seeing the bad faith with which Moroccan authorities have been handling the case, Ali’s lawyers are quite pessimistic about the future of the case. Indeed, they are not expecting the justice system to leave the possibility of national authorities recognising the torture suffered during Ali’s first interrogations in Morocco. It is likely that Ali will serve the 12-year sentence, as decided by the appeal court.

Morocco does not seem to respect its international legal obligations, particularly with regard to the Convention against Torture, which the country ratified in 1993. The obligations to investigate and to provide as full means as possible for the rehabilitation of victims are not optional.

Ali Aarrass continues to suffer daily abuse, and inhuman and degrading treatment inside his prison. However, despite the continued threats and actual abuse, he never hesitates to speak out on his situation.

Many organisations, lawyers, family members who support him, and Ali himself, can still hope that the international bodies will eventually recognise the violation of Ali’s fundamental rights and offer him an opportunity for full rehabilitation.

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Denmark may use information obtained through torture

Danish Foreign Minister Villy Søvndal had to step back from comments he made promising that the Danish state would never use information from torture. As such, the status quo remains, and Denmark's intelligence services may use such information. Photo available through Creative Commons license, via Flickr.

Information obtained through torturing suspects in other countries will from now on be banned in investigations undertaken by Danish authorities,” said Danish Foreign Minister, Villy Søvndal, in an interview on Sunday morning to national Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende.

The very same evening, Søvndal retracted this in a joint statement with the Danish Minister for Justice, Morten Bødskov in which they stated that Danish authorities must be able to exchange information with countries that “use methods of interrogation that may contradict Danish principles of justice” – in other words information that has been obtained via torture.

Under Denmark’s former government, the Danish police intelligence unit (PET) was permitted to use information obtained through torture under the guise of anti-terror policies.

For a brief moment, following Søvndal’s statement, it seemed that this policy would come to an end, However, the withdrawal of Søvndal’s initial statement leaves Denmark with the status quo whereby information obtained by torture can be used in investigation procedures by the Danish authorities.

Denmark has often been described as a country at the forefront in the fight against torture, not least because the Danish founder of IRCT, and it’s local member centre the RCT, Inge Genefke, devoted her life to fight this horrific practice.

Today, the hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario, a fantasy of Hollywood movies, was recited in Danish newspapers as an argument in support of the use of torture. The legal spokesman from the Danish Conservative Party, Tom Behnke, said: “If the intelligence unit from a rogue state informs the Danish police intelligence unit (PET) that a terror attack has been planned against the Danish Opera then PET, of course, has to be able to use this information”.

The anti-torture movement has countered the “ticking bomb” scenario with facts and good reason countless times. It should be commonly understood by now, especially among high-level politicians, that information obtained through torture is completely and utterly unreliable. The pain and suffering that torture inflicts upon a person will make him/her say anything to end the pain; additionally, the anguish and distress during the torture disrupts a persons’ sense of reality and truth so that the victim cannot differentiate between the two, as Danish IRCT member centre RCT also stated today.

Accepting information obtained through torture effectively legitimises the regimes around the world that maintain their grip on power and terrorise their populations through the use of torture. To give a current high-profile example, it is tantamount to legitimising Assad’s Syria.

If any thing good can be said about this developing news story, it is that a renewed debate on Denmark’s slippery position on the use of torture has gained the renewed interest of the public. In case people didn’t know before, they know now: yes, Danish authorities may accept evidence obtained through torture. And yes, this contradicts the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT), to which Denmark is a signatory. Should there be doubts about the applicability of this particular debate, Article 15 specifically stipulates that:

Each State Party shall ensure that any statement, which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings.”

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