Commemorating International Human Rights Day by supporting our work to fight torture worldwide

On the 10th of December, the world commemorates the 69th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was an acknowledgment that every person has equal rights everywhere in the world, including the right to be free from torture.

Unfortunately, human rights are continuously under attack. But we still believe that darkness falls and hope rises.
MAG pic for WWT

Photo: Health professionals in the Philippines being trained in how to identify, document and report cases of torture.

Just a few weeks ago, we were in the Philippines, where there are around 13,000 reported deaths resulting from the government’s bloody “War on Drugs” committed without due process.

Yet, together with our member centre the Medical Action Group, we trained brave Filipino health professionals on how to identify, document and report cases of torture. This effort was supported by the Department of Health, which also acknowledged the urgent need to develop hospital ER protocols for recognizing and supporting torture victims.

For over 30 years, our member the Medical Action Group has been taking this road less traveled – putting up a good fight to make the country torture-free. Born in 1982, at the height of the Marcos dictatorship, the Medical Action Group continuously commits itself as a health professional organization to collectively respond and speak out against any forms of gross human rights violation. Their work is becoming relevant now more than ever.

So what better way of celebrating this important day than to support our work – empowering the most vulnerable in society and supporting victims of torture – by donating to this cause.

While fighting for human rights seems futile sometimes, let’s remember:

Even in the darkest times and unfavorable circumstances, through the reign of dictatorships and oppressive regimes, there are those – like IRCT’s members – who keep the flame of hope burning.

As the saying goes, “If not now, when?. If not us, who would?”

If you want to support this important work please donate here.


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The Power of Video

Thanks to Judith Weinstein and everyone at Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center for this blog.

The scenario

Organizations have long recognized the power of media to engage individuals in their mission, and a short, compelling video is arguably one of the best fundraising tools there is. Telling the story of torture survivors poses certain ethical challenges, but there are narrative challenges as well. The experience of torture is so remote for most of the target audience that it can be hard to relate to. Tell too graphic a story and the audience will distance itself; too vague, and we risk not reaching others emotionally. Two weeks before our 30th anniversary benefit, held in the spring of 2017, Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center’s challenge was to produce a powerful video that would be honest but not sensationalist, tell our story, and encourage giving.

This was not Kovler Center’s first experience in making a video. A number of years ago, we worked with Heartland Alliance to produce a short video about a survivor. In 2012, looking to create a video that would tell more about our mission, we sought the help of Michael Leck, a local filmmaker and recent graduate of Columbia College in Chicago. Kovler Center’s associate director of development had come across Michael’s videos on the internet, and especially liked the tone and look of other films he had created. When we reached out to Michael, he was fascinated by our work and humbled by the task, and offered to produce the video pro bono, as he was in the early stages of his professional career. Michael has since gone on to produce many more films, including one for the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, where he now resides and has a rich body of work.

In the early months of 2017, Kovler Center’s plans for its 30th anniversary benefit, to be held April 27, 2017, went into high gear. For several months, Kovler Center had been working with Just Cause, a non-profit consultancy comprised of  Nancy Kohn and Lisa Acker. Our small but nimble benefit committee was inspired and energized by their wisdom and expertise and each time we followed their advice, it paid off. So, when they suggested making a video, we made a video.

How to produce a compelling fundraising tool in 15 days

While the previous video still seemed to have a lasting shelf life, we knew that it could not be shown at the April 2017 fundraiser. It had already resided five years on our website, and our guests – even the new donors – had already been initiated into Kovler Center’s work through tours and benefit outreach and thus did not need a primer on torture or our services. We needed to reach our donors—old and new—in an emotional and moving way the “night-of.”

But it was almost mid-April. The benefit was April 27. Did we really need a new video for the benefit? And at a time when we were already swamped with benefit tasks?

Lisa and Nancy showed us a video they had helped create for a cancer treatment program on the north shore of Chicago. Most of the benefit committee had been looking to other torture treatment programs or human rights organizations for inspiration on how to promote our work and would not have thought to consider a program like this, but it was revelatory. The cancer treatment center video showed individuals telling the story of their cancer diagnoses and treatment. Eventually, the viewer learns that they are not cancer survivors themselves, but are relatives of survivors or board members of the organization, telling the stories of others. At the end of the video, we were overwhelmed with emotion. And it hit us: to tell the story of a survivor is an honor, a profound act of humanity.

Yes, we needed a new video. And we needed it in two weeks. Someone shared the story of friends who planned a wedding in a month. We could produce a video in 15 days. And we were off!

The rest of the story can be told through the production timeline one of our team members put together to keep us on track. Distilling the seemingly impossible task of “produce a video in two weeks,” suddenly looked possible as the sum of a series of essential, indivisible tasks, each with a deadline and a responsible team member. This management tool, plus the collegial, enthusiastic and driven nature of the benefit team, made it happen. The following is a summary of the major tasks.

Selecting the Filmmaker

The consultants gave us names of a few filmmakers and videographers to add to the list the benefit team had generated. In the end, it came down to two filmmakers who were available for such a rushed production schedule. Luckily, they were our top two picks. Both submitted proposals to us, and the one whose work resonated the most with us turned out to be significantly less expensive than the other.

We provided the filmmaker with information about what Kovler Center is all about, including photos and details from distinctive Kovler Center activities, such as our cooking groups, that would inform his work.

Drafting Survivor Stories

Two members of the benefit team drafted three survivor stories – composites of several survivors’ experiences – and submitted them to two other members for editing. All components of the stories were factual. We wanted these stories to reflect different regions and male and female survivors. We changed the country, sex, age, and other elements of the stories so they would not be identifiable.

Selecting Narrators

We chose three staff members to relate these stories on film. That these narrators were ethnically and racially diverse was important, but also happenstance, given the diversity of Kovler Center’s staff. In advance of filming we provided the readers typed copies of the stories for them to review.

Establishing a Filming/Editing Schedule

The videographer had one day to film at Kovler Center. There would be a tight turnaround for editing of the versions that the filmmaker sent us, also according to established deadlines. The video was finalized two days before the benefit.

The Unexpected

The day of filming, the videographer asked if someone from the administrative staff could speak on film in general terms. We had not planned for this and therefore had not designated anyone in advance. It was obvious to all that this speaker should be senior director, Mary Lynn Everson. Not having planned to be in the video, Mary Lynn went before the filmmaker’s camera. The filmmaker’s second shooter asked her a few questions, questions that were typical of someone unfamiliar with our work. Perhaps it was the innocence of these questions, likely to be the same many in our target audience would have, that prompted a response that we believe to be as impactful as the survivor stories read on camera. We believe Mary Lynn’s unscripted response, the final words of the video, stated simply and powerfully, will resonate for years to come:

“There is nothing in what you see that will identify someone as a survivor of torture. But they’re here, and they deserve our attention. They deserve our help. And they deserve to have a good life in our country.”

We wish to thank Matt Wechsler of Hourglass Films, our benefit team colleagues, Peter Kovler, and all of the survivors who entrusted us with their stories so that we could join them on their path to healing.

The video may be viewed on the Kovler Center web site:

Contact: Mary Lynn Everson, Senior Director, Marjorie Kovler Center

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globallgbt0716_worldmap-01   Picture courtesy of Human Rights Watch

Just last month, on 25 September, attendees at an indie rock concert in Cairo raised a rainbow flag, making a rare sign of support to the marginalized LGBTI community there.  Now, the police have arrested over 30 men and women in connection with the act for “promoting sexual deviancy” and “debauchery”.

While homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, individuals suspected of LGBTI are still often targeted and even imprisoned on these ridiculous charges. And last month not only have people been arrested and charged, but at least 5 men have also been subjected to forced anal examinations.

These examinations, based on defunct and discriminatory 1800s science, where a medical personnel sticks his or her finger(s) or objects into an individual’s anus to measure laxity to gauge if the person is habituated to anal intercourse, has just been condemned by the World Medical Association (WMA) on 17 October 2017. At its 68th General Assembly it adopted a resolution condemning forced anal examinations to substantiate same-sex sexual activity as unscientific, futile, and a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) welcomes this important resolution, which recognizes the valuable work of the Independent Forensic Expert Group, an international hub of expertise, comprising thirty-five preeminent experts from eighteen countries, specialised in forensic investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. The IRCT serves as its Secretariat and urges all national medical associations as well as other relevant bodies to swiftly implement the recommendations from the WMA.

Because of our leadership on this issue and taking advantage of our pool of knowledge on the health-based consequences of torture, the IRCT is currently coordinating with Human Rights Watch and local activists on the ground to raise awareness of the pervasive oppression of LGBTI persons in Egypt, increase international and national pressure on the government of Egypt to cease their illegal harassment of these individuals. Our ultimate goal with this work is to convince the Egyptian government to repudiate the invasive and harmful practice of anal examinations as well as stop the policing and punishing of individuals based on their sexual identity and orientation.

If you want to support this important work please donate here.


Read the World Medical Association Resolution here:

For more information on the IFEG, please see:

For the IFEG’s expert statement, which is cited in the WMA resolution, and for more information on our work against anal examinations, please see:




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In landmark hearing, Human Rights Organizations will ask Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold U.S. accountable for abuse and discrimination of Guantánamo detainee

For nearly 12 years, Djamel Ameziane, an Algerian citizen, was arbitrarily detained without charge at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. During his detention, Mr. Ameziane was tortured and suffered from other forms of abuse. In 2009, the U.S. approved his release from Guantánamo, yet he remained imprisoned for another five years. In December 2013, Mr. Ameziane was forcibly repatriated to Algeria despite having fled from violence and persecution for belonging to a minority ethnicity.

More than 15 years after Mr. Ameziane was captured and brought to Guantánamo, his case will be presented at a merits hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. During the hearing, his lawyers from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) will: I. Highlight the serious human rights violations committed against Mr. Ameziane during his detention at Guantánamo Bay; II. Indicate what reparations the United States is obligated to provide, in light of the human rights violations in question, including guarantees for non-repetition for all other Guantánamo detainees; and III. Petition the Commission to issue a merits report to establish the responsibility of the United States with regards to the case and recommend reparations.

Djamel_portrait_07 smaller version2

Photo: Debi Cornwall

If the IACHR rules in favor of Mr. Ameziane, it would be the first case regarding human rights violations committed at the Guantánamo Bay prison that a regional human rights body issues a decision on. Moreover, the decision will mark a historic victory for him and Guantánamo Bay detainees and their right to judicial reparations. Additionally, the IACHR’s decision will be a decisive condemnation against one of the most reprehensible vestiges left from the “War on Terror.” Finally, at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has stated his intention to not only keep the detention center open, but to fill it up, the September 7 hearing will be an opportunity for CCR and CEJIL to urge the Commission to remain vigilant on the issue of Guantánamo and U.S. accountability, and encourage OAS member states to remain engaged and accept detainees for resettlement where needed.

This is a reprint of a press release by CEJIL and the Center for Constitutional Rights on the matter of Djamel Ameziane. World Without Torture and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims wholeheartedly support the efforts described to establish accountability for the violations described therein. To see the webcast of the hearing go to livestream at on Thursday September 7, 2017 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Mexico City time). At a later stage, you can search for the video in the IACHR archives under the reference “Case 12.865 – Djamel Ameziane”. For further information contact Alex McAnarney, +1 (305) 335-5665.

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Facilitating ‘reasonable hope’ with refugees and asylum seekers

By Greg Turner

This text first appeared in Forced Migration Review in June 2017.

The loss of hope over time has led to despair and a mental health crisis for refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. The use of the principle of ‘reasonable hope’, however, can support their mental health and well-being.

The reasons why people seek asylum are diverse but the common factor is the overriding need to flee and a hope that life will be better. For many asylum seekers, Australia seemed to offer everything they hoped for. But in August 2012, nervous of public perceptions of being ‘swamped’ by asylum seekers, the Australian government passed legislation decreeing that all Irregular Maritime Arrivals (asylum seekers arriving by boat) would be sent to either Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or to Nauru for the processing of their asylum claims. Furthermore, in September that year the government announced that refugees who had arrived by boat on or after 13th August 2012 would no longer be eligible to sponsor their family members for resettlement, and in October 2016 the government announced that individuals who had been sent to Manus Island or Nauru since July 2013 would never be allowed to settle in Australia under any circumstances. It thus became a question of date of arrival or means of transport – or occasionally other, at times inexplicable, reasons – as to whether a person would be held in detention in Australia or be sent to Nauru or Manus. The inability to make sense of the process or to anticipate future events, their powerlessness, and the obvious unfairness of the process are not just mental health risk factors but a recipe for cognitive decline and mental health breakdown (The Nauru files, The Guardian,

In limbo on Nauru

Greg Turner picPicture courtesy of the US Energy Dept Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program

Nauru is a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean – small enough to drive around in half an hour. In the last decade or so its greatest source of revenue has been the immigration detention centres built and maintained by the Australian government. Asylum seekers sent to Nauru are detained while their claims are processed; most are recognised as refugees and are then ‘settled’ into various camps located around the island. Outside the detention centre, life can be even more difficult than inside, with reports of assaults, rapes, bullying of children, poor schooling, poor health care and a myriad of psychosocial stressors and mental health risk factors. It is not what was hoped for. The tidal flow of hope and despair gradually erodes mental health, and as months turn into years, and the years roll by, the hope of getting to Australia or some other country becomes their sole focus. Over a two-year period to December 2016 I worked as a consultant psychologist providing support and training to the refugee settlement workforce on Nauru, which included refugees themselves (The settlement organisation employed refugees in administrative and operational support roles – which had benefits in terms of participation but resulted in role conflict and relationship challenges).

During this time I became aware of the mental health risk factors associated with this overwhelming focus on what I call the ‘One Big Hope’ – that is, of leaving Nauru – and how the idea of ‘reasonable hope’ articulated by Kaethe Weingarten might help maintain healthy mental processes and preserve mental health (Weingarten K (2010) ‘Reasonable hope: Construct, clinical applications and supports’, Family Process, 49 (1): 5-25 Support workers and mental health professionals often struggle to find viable strategies to maintain the mental health of the refugees on Nauru. Some of the professionals worry about encouraging hope in the face of what often may appear as hopeless, concerned that they may be supporting false hope. Others encourage the One Big Hope, perhaps in the hope that the image of desperate refugees will help ‘prove’ that settlement on Nauru is not working and that they must therefore be resettled in Australia or another country. As well intentioned as this may be, the result is a constant preoccupation with the future and with what may be an unattainable hope of resettlement. This type of obsession has led to severe mental health problems and suicidal behaviour resulting in some cases in serious injury and death. This is particularly the case following perceived opportunities, such as elections or visits from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

From a neurological perspective, the result of the constant focus on a distant hope is the reinforcement of neural pathways associated with that hope and the decay of neural pathways not associated with it. Thus afflicted, people find it difficult to maintain meaningful activities and healthy mental processes for daily life.

From despair to ‘reasonable’ hope

One of the major tasks of the refugee settlement support worker is, or should be, to assist their client to maintain healthy mental processes despite uncertainty, disappointment and apparent hopelessness. While resources may be scant, workers can use evidence-based interventions and practices, applied with professionalism, persistence and imagination. A primary purpose of this is to stimulate pathways in the brain, not so as to encourage denial or the extinction of the One Big Hope but to encourage the development and reinforcement of other neural pathways – other thought processes – through identifying other hopes which have a relatively high chance of being realised.

“Reasonable hope’s objective is the process of making sense of what exists now in the belief that this prepares us to meet what lies ahead. With reasonable hope, the present is filled with working not waiting […] it provides a way of thinking about hope for therapist and client alike that makes it more accessible even in the grimmest circumstances…” Kaethe Weingarten

According to Weingarten there are five main characteristics of reasonable hope:

  • Firstly, it is ‘relational’ in that it flourishes in relationships and is not merely an individual attribute. I found this resonated with the refugees of Nauru as they live in close contact with others in the same situation, supported by empathetic workers.
  • Secondly, it consists of a practice that is a daily process rather than an end point – about doing rather than wishing. This is fundamentally important for refugees with the One Big Hope which is generally about an end point such as getting off Nauru, or getting a visa. This characteristic of reasonable hope shifts the reinforcement of neural pathways associated with the One Big Hope to reinforcing those associated with daily living.
  • Thirdly, it maintains that the future is uncertain but open. Although uncertainty is a significant mental health risk factor for asylum seekers and refugees, these characteristics mean that there are still possibilities. Nobody can predict what is around the corner. I utilised this many times with refugees on Nauru to challenge their despair and pessimism.
  • Fourthly, it seeks goals and pathways to identified goals. By identifying realistic goals, and pathways to achieve these goals, refugees can obtain – often through a process of trial and error – a sense of control and predictability over daily life. As more and more new neural pathways and networks are activated, cognition improves as do general mental health and well-being.
  • Fifthly, it accommodates doubt, contradictions and despair – very appropriate in the environment in which refugees exist.

Training in facilitating reasonable hope provides those who support refugees and asylum seekers with practical mechanisms to support their clients to focus on the present and to reinforce positive cognitive processes. It is in no way my intention to deprive refugees and asylum seekers of the hope of getting off Manus Island or Nauru. The One Big Hope will always be in their minds. However, rather than have that sole, distant hope dominate their lives, the concept of reasonable hope can provide
other points of focus in the present and the immediate future, helping individuals to identify achievable albeit humble hopes that bring satisfaction and further motivation. When refugees and asylum seekers do finally reach a place of safety, their mental processes will be intact and they will be in a stronger position to face the challenges of settlement and to lead productive lives.

This article is kindly reproduced with the permission of the Forced Migration Review

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Conversation with Abebe* by IRCT member center Survivors of Torture, International

*the client’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS) is the only accredited torture treatment center in San Diego, California and is one of the 18 IRCT-accredited torture treatment centers in the U.S. and Canada.  Since its inception 20 years ago, SURVIVORS has served over 2,000 clients from over 80 countries.  Torture survivors who go to San Diego become part of the SURVIVORS’ family, and many keep in touch long after they stop receiving treatment. Today, SURVIVORS’ current and former clients are going to school, starting their own businesses, working full-time, and becoming U.S. citizens. Here is a Q&A with a former client who shares his story and his successes that many other SURVIVORS’ clients ultimately achieve.

Question: Where are you from and why did you leave your home country?

Abebe: I am from Ethiopia. I fled because I was active in a political party against the corrupt government in power that was oppressing people and violating human rights. They imprisoned and tortured me and they killed many people. That’s why I left Ethiopia.

Q: What was it like when you first arrived here?

A: At the beginning it was very difficult because I didn’t have any documents and I was not able to work or study. I didn’t have a community and I only knew a few people. I was not stable financially. It was stressful. Q: How did you hear about SURVIVORS? A: I heard about SURVIVORS from my lawyer. She told me they could help me with some basic needs including a psychological and medical evaluation that would support my asylum case.

Q: What was it like being at SURVIVORS for the first time?

A: I just liked the place. It’s very peaceful and everyone was very nice and welcoming to me. I felt at home. I knew that I would be helped.

SoTI Hand holding

Q: What services did you participate in?

A: Besides the documentation for my case I went to counseling for three years; it was, of course, free of charge. I also went to group therapy where we painted, told stories, and learned to write. I was matched with a volunteer family. It was very nice for me. We used to go hiking and go to the beach. SURVIVORS also helped me get a scholarship to take a GRE preparatory course and pay for the test. Most importantly, they helped with basic needs like hygiene products and even food.

Q: Are you still in touch with the people you met at SURVIVORS?

A: Yes. My befriender and I exchange emails. And I constantly see SURVIVORS. When I became a U.S. citizen, even though I gave short notice, SURVIVORS came. Even my friends couldn’t come, but SURVIVORS was there for that big moment of my life.

Q: How long was it before you started to feel better and to feel like a part of the community?

A: At the beginning I felt very alone. After about a year and a half I got my work permit which made me more productive and helped me meet people. SURVIVORS helped me meet people too, so I became more relaxed and more focused. Now I’m studying to get my master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership and SURVIVORS helped me find the program and information on how to apply.

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I worked as a case manager for three years assisting refugees and asylees. Right now I am focusing on school and I will graduate in May. I work part-time as an interpreter. I also volunteer for Casa Cornelia [a local public interest law firm] with interpretation to help other Ethiopians those who are asylum seekers.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

 A: Of course, I want to finish my education and find a job in my field in the United States. One day I plan to go back to Ethiopia to open a nonprofit because there is a lot of need for that. Otherwise, I’d like to work for the United Nations or an international organization.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: I’d like people to know that the work SURVIVORS does is really amazing and a person like me has been helped to become productive. They are open-minded, trusting, and friendly, but also professional and help us and guide us to become the people we want to be. I still continue to feel like a part of the SURVIVORS’ community and I really enjoy it. Whenever I think about SURVIVORS I always feel safe. I hope and pray that the mission of SURVIVORS will spread all over the world so that they can help more people – people like me.

SoTI Tree

This blog is a re-print of the interview originally printed in SURVIVORS’ Newsletter, “The Survivor”, Volume 19, Issue 2 (November 2016).  Learn more about the work of SURVIVORS and support their work at


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Collaborative Models: Reflections on working with survivors of violence and torture

“When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.”

In her post on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, youth psychologist Gabriela Monroy offers readers a glimpse into one of the projects currently being implemented under the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program. Coalition members Covenant House International and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) are working together to develop a comprehensive set of materials on issues related to trauma informed care. These materials will be used for training and as reference for healthcare workers and specialists to better understand the effects of trauma and how to approach traumatised youth.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Gabriela Monroy)

I am a psychologist at La Alianza, Covenant House International’s (CHI) safe house for trafficked and sexually exploited girls in Guatemala. I am also the CHI regional coordinator in Latin America for the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program on trauma-informed care, which is being carried out by the IRCT and CHI. I was invited to attend the 10th International Scientific Symposium organised by the IRCT in December 2016 in Mexico City. When I received the invitation, I very much looked forward to the opportunity to learn from survivors of torture and those who work to support them. I knew I had much to learn and much to share. After three days of listening to the presentations and experiences from different countries, I began to realise that in many countries across the globe like mine, “normal” is similar to a war zone where death, torture, rape, abuse and abandonment of children is the norm and life is a continuum of traumatic events. The exception is a moment of human and humane interaction– which is what we strive to accomplish at La Alianza.

(Gabriela Monroy, right, with one of her patients at La Alianza in Guatemala)

At La Alianza, young girls who are survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation find an environment that offers them the opportunity to finally be treated as human beings, in a dignified, respectful and non-violent way. For some of them, the violence in their lives has been so overwhelming that it can feel traumatic to be treated in such a humane fashion. Using a trauma informed care lens in my day-to-day work as a youth psychologist, I see, after some time of working with them, that the impact on their lives is visible. Society seems so surprised at the transformation that care, affection, and dignified treatment can produce. It is ironic because acting in a humane way should be the most common thing we do as humans, yet it still surprises us even more than the violence itself.

Every single presentation at the Symposium presented the testimonies and experiences of survivors on this continuum of violence and torture as examples of integrity and dignity. This simple reflection on my experience of this symposium hopefully will be a recognition and a homage to their courage and an expression of my respect for each one’s journey and all they have gone through.

When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.

Also, we need to realise that best practices for dealing with survivors of torture and violence need to be based in respect for their day-to-day experience and respect for the ways they have survived, and if we can recognise this then we may be able to transform the norm that violence has become into the exception. This is my hope. I am grateful to the Hilton Prize Coalition for giving me the opportunity to be a witness to such courage.

About the Hilton Prize Coalition

The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.

For more information please visit their website.

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Collecting data to achieve justice for torture victims

“Working with survivors and families of victims of torture is not an easy task. Listening to survivors recount painful, dehumanising and degrading memories of torture in the hands of the government invokes a hunger and drive to keep fighting for the rights of the underserved.”

Hilda Nyatete from Kenyan rehabilitation centre IMLU recently completed a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). In her blog post published on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, Hilda writes about the importance of comprehensive clinical documentation and the IRCT’s Data in the Fight against Impunity (DFI) project, which she believes can help victims in their pursuit of justice.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Hilda Nyatete)

My work at the Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) revolves around ensuring that victims of torture and their families receive psychological support both at the individual and group level. IMLU has been a member of the IRCT for many years, and has become the premier organisation supporting victims of torture in Kenya. It supports an average of 500 victims of torture annually.

One of the challenges my team constantly has to tackle is the victim’s fear, which often leads to a low level or a complete lack of cooperation when reporting cases of torture. This is due to intimidation by the perpetrators, who not only deny any accusations of wrongdoing but may also put forward fabricated charges against the victims, which piles onto their fear. The fear and intimidation have caused us to be very intentional in involving clients throughout the process of reporting, entering data about their case from intake, during service provision, and until the client is released from active medical support and counseling; that way, the clients understand the critical role their information plays in allowing them to achieve justice.

Participants from different organisations working on clinical documentation under the DFI project

With 25% of cases going to court, IMLU works with a network of professionals who provide critical documentation of torture and ill treatment in legal proceedings. These evaluations and subsequent documentation take place all over the country. The purpose of the medical and psychological evaluation is twofold: to provide an expert opinion on the degree to which findings correlate with the alleged victim’s allegation of torture, and to effectively communicate the clinician’s findings and interpretations to the judiciary or other appropriate authorities. It is key that clinical documentation is done diligently and in a clear and concise manner to ensure that justice is served.

To face the challenges of threats, intimidation, and a tedious documentation process, IMLU developed a database system which was officially launched in 2015. The system goes beyond data entry about the clients’ respective cases, enabling the staff to manage individual and group calendars and diaries; that way, those who work with clients but do not engage with data entry on a daily basis still find it useful. My work as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has revolved around continually engaging staff in this comprehensive clinical documentation, as well as supporting other organisations in the process, which ultimately serves to enable victims to achieve justice.

It remains paramount that organisations such as IMLU collect and document data on these human rights violations. During my Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico City for the IRCT’s 10th International Scientific Symposium in December 2016. I met colleagues from various organisations who are also working at IRCT member centers and participating in the Data in the Fight Against Impunity Project, who are just beginning to establish their own database system. Sharing my experience of how the IMLU system has made our work easier while ensuring that clients are involved in documentation, was exciting and meaningful. Little did I think that the work we were doing at IMLU would be of such great impact to colleagues in the sector. Being a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has given me a boost of confidence and allowed me to learn a great deal not only in matters of clinical documentation but on leadership, networking, and quite a bit on humanitarian work. I am truly grateful to have been accorded this wonderful platform and opportunity to learn, grow, and to contribute to the common good.

About the Hilton Prize Coalition

The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.

For more information please visit their website.

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Purge and persecution in Turkey

Last month, the Turkish government fired some 4,500 court clerks, librarians and computer experts considered “dangers to the state”. The move, which is part of the government’s ongoing crackdown on alleged coup sympathisers, takes the number of public servants who have been dismissed to around 125,000. Adding to this, more than 40,000 people have been arrested since last year’s failed coup, while reports of torture and ill treatment have become commonplace in a country where respect for human rights and freedom of speech has been put aside.

Among the people who have been arrested since the attempted coup is Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci who is the President of IRCT member centre Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT). Dr Fincanci was arrested in June 2016, along with two other prominent human rights defenders, Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, for taking part in a solidarity campaign to defend the independence of the newspaper Ozgur Gundem – a paper that is often critical of the government and aligned with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

While international pressure helped secure their release 10 days after the arrest, the three human rights defenders are still facing charges under the country’s Anti Terror Law, pending an investigation into their alleged involvement in terrorist propaganda. If found guilty they could face up to 14 years in jail.

It is not difficult to see why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government consider Dr Fincanci a threat. A leading figure in the anti-torture movement, she was one of the contributors to the development of the United Nations reference standards on the investigation and documentation of torture (the Istanbul Protocol) and she has conducted endless forensic investigations to expose torture in Turkey as well as other countries. All of these are achievements not appreciated by the government.

Sebnem Korur Fincanci.

Now, with the government ramping up its crackdown, the number of cases of alleged torture and ill treatment in police detention has also increased. Speaking to a journalist from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one woman explained how she was taking care of 13 people after all the men in the family had been arrested. Some of them had been tortured while in detention with one documenting the police beatings in a statement:

“They beat me on the soles of my feet, on my stomach, then squeezed my testicles, saying they would castrate me,”

Another man told the journalist about the torture that his 66-year-old father had endured while in prison. This included having his toenails pulled out.

Despite international outcry and condemnation, Turkey continues to tighten its grip and those who provide rehabilitation services to torture victims or help them with the forensic documentation of their cases continue to be seen as “dangers to the state”.

Several HRFT staff targeted

Dr Fincanci is far from the only HRFT staff who has been targeted by the Turkish authorities because of her anti-torture work. Other colleagues have also been arrested or dismissed from their public duties and in 2015, HRFT itself was fined approximately 30.000 EUR in connection with its work to support torture victims from the anti-government protests.

One of the staff targeted by the authorities is Dr Serdar Küni who was arrested on 19 October last year for no apparent reason and has been detained in Şırnak Prison since then. His first court hearing took place on 13 March, but Dr Küni was not released. Instead he is still in custody, waiting for his next hearing to take place on 24 April.

As for Dr Fincanci, Önderoğlu and Nesin, their trial has been postponed twice already, but a new court date has been set for next week. At the last hearing, Director of Governance and Policy at the IRCT, Miriam Reventlow made it clear that there is strong international support for all the human rights defenders currently on trial: “The IRCT, as part of the global movement for the rehabilitation of torture victims, continues to stand with Dr Fincanci, her family and other colleagues in solidarity and support at this challenging time.”

Dr Fincanci herself is despondent about the situation in Turkey and her pending trial:

“It is really one of the most difficult times for Turkey in any way. Torture is now common in detention centres, and conditions in prisons worsen every day,” she says. “As for my trial, we can never be sure, because this is also a period of unpredictability. Nevertheless, we are starting to see convictions in similar cases, such as postponed imprisonment of one year and three months and fines of 6000 Turkish Lira.”

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Four women in the fight against torture

Today marks 42 years since the UN began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March. To honour women’s achievements we have spoken with four inspirational women who were recently elected to the Executive Committee of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. They represent four different regions of the world, but they all share a strong commitment to the fight against torture. Here they tell us how they got to where they are now and what it is like to work with torture victims.

Sana Hamzeh, Clinical Advisor at Restart Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Lebanon

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

SH: I have been working in the field of rehabilitation since 1986. I was one of the three founding members of Restart, which was first established in 1996 in Tripoli and then later in Beirut in 2007. I have been able to gain international expertise in the documentation of torture according to the Istanbul Protocol and 23 of the cases that I have psychologically documented have been referred to the court, with the collaboration of lawyers. In December 2016, I was elected Vice President of the IRCT, which provides a valuable opportunity to spread our vision of the fight against torture through prevention, accountability and reparation.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector?

SH: My journey through rehabilitation, with an emphasis on torture survivors, was not clearly outlined in the initial stages of my professional career. However, as the turbulent political situation in Lebanon and its neighboring countries continued, the need to treat this group of victims became clear. The intensity of torture victims’ suffering and the urgency of responding to their situation, propelled me towards this decision of responding actively to their mental health needs, including many women who were silenced for years and had been too afraid to speak out.

WWT: How many clients does your center approximately treat/support each year?

SH: Restart Center has treated approximately 4,116 clients in the past year. However, those numbers are subject to variation from one year to the next. In Restart’s first 20 years of establishment, we helped approximately 17,650 people.

WWT: Who are the clients and where do they come from?

SH: Restart simultaneously works on several projects targeting various clients, including people from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as well as other nationalities such as Egyptians, Sudanese, Bahraini and Ethiopians. Restart supports victims of torture, ill-treatment and war trauma; in particular, those in specific situations of vulnerability such as ex-detainees, secondary victims, refugees and asylum seekers, women victims of Gender-Based Violence etc.

In addition, we also provide community-based psychosocial support as well as animation and reconciliation activities to victims of war trauma including victims of torture, traumatised children, children of detained parents and young mothers.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

SH: Responding to survivors’ unique needs may be distressing at times, but the end result is more rewarding than words can describe. Eliciting smiles in individuals who had forgotten what a smile even means, or re-establishing the bonds that were once destroyed in a family, is the main reason why I look forward to the next day. For instance, a client of ours from Iraq initially approached our centre with severe Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder symptoms. Not only have his symptoms now subsided, but he is also currently working as a filmmaker, with one of his films soon to be shown in Cannes. My work reminds me that I have a second home and this feeling is mutual. One of our clients expressed her feelings towards her second home through the following words: “Restart Center is the only place where I feel human, well respected and able to express myself without feeling afraid.” These words offer hope and propel me to continue doing what I do despite all of the challenges that may arise in between.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

SH: Torture rehabilitation is a right that should be granted by the state, although that is seldom the case. Survivors’ memories of their traumatic experiences are painful; they seem inexorable and real. Accepting the past is vital, but demanding that the victim regains his or her dignity is equally important. The key is to provide rehabilitation services through which, victims can learn how to deal with their traumas and grief, and to look at a future that was previously inconceivable. Victims’ lives can be dramatically altered so that they can stand up once again. Through a holistic approach that addresses the physical, psychological, social and legal service needs of the torture survivors, life can be perceived as “life” once again.

Kathi Anderson, Executive Director of Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS), San Diego, US

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

KA: I am the co-founder of SURVIVORS, which was established 20 years ago on February 27 this year. Prior to SURVIVORS, I resettled refugees for the International Rescue Committee, volunteered with Amnesty International and was in private practice caring for traumatised clients from many areas of the world.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector?

KA: I was encouraged by professional colleagues to start a torture treatment centre in San Diego where there was a growing need for specialised care for an increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees arriving from throughout the world.

WWT: How many clients does your centre approx. treat/support each year?

KA: Recently, we have expanded our projects so we are now working with more than 500 clients per year.

WWT: Who are the clients and where do they come from?

KA: The vast majority of our clients are asylum seekers and refugees. In the past five years, the top five countries of origin are Iraq, Somali, Mexico, Ethiopia and Iran. Over the past 20 years, the clients have come from more than 80 countries.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

KA: The work is incredibly rewarding. To be able to counter what the torturers have done to our clients by providing a safe haven for them to heal is extremely gratifying. I enjoy bearing witness to our clients’ improvements and being part of something bigger than me.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

KA: Torture survivors need to have access to specialised care so they can learn to trust again, rebuild their lives and have hope for their future and their children’s future.

Mariana Lagos, Psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Argentine Team of Psychosocial Work and Research (EATIP), Argentina

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

ML: I have been working in this field for 25 years. Even during my years at university I used to participate in a broad movement of young people that supported Madres de Plaza de Mayo.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector (torture rehabilitation)?

ML: Severe trauma left by the military dictatorship in Argentina shaped my generation as well as large sectors of the society, creating an unwavering commitment to Memory, Truth and Justice.
When I chose my career I was motivated by the desire to contribute professionally to alleviating human suffering. My parents, with their strong political, social and professional activities, were role models for me and my siblings when we grew up. The three of us have taken on that family legacy and we use our knowledge and effort to practice our profession while taking into consideration the needs of our people.
WWT: How many clients does your centre approx. treat/support each year?

ML: Throughout the history of EATIP, we have supported and assisted thousands of victims. Currently, we are carrying out several clinical and psychosocial assistance units that reach more than 100 people.

WWT: Who are EATIP’s clients and where do they come from?

ML: EATIP provides assistance to individuals and groups affected by torture and several other traumatic situations of social origin, where the state is responsible. At the beginning we assisted the families of people who had disappeared or survived the military dictatorship. Today, many of them are plaintiffs and witnesses in trials for crimes against humanity. Lately, we have also started providing assistance to people affected by new situations, such as relatives of young people killed by the security forces and relatives of victims and survivors of tragedies caused by state negligence and corruption. We also provide assistance to people affected by the criminalisation of poverty and social protest and the violation of rights of native peoples’ leaders, migrants, refugees and women victims of human trafficking.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

ML: It is a privilege, even if sometimes it is hard work. I feel that it is very rewarding to be able to provide support to people and their families during their extensive treatment processes. We become part of their story and share their accomplishments. At EATIP, we share with our clients and with groups of affected people the complex path to fighting impunity.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

ML: Because it is the right of groups and individuals affected, so that they can overcome both the consequences and losses they have suffered, while improving their lives. In order to reach out to people affected by torture, clinical and psychosocial approaches require specialised professionals and systems that victims can trust. In addition to the right to rehabilitation, achieving justice is essential both for individual and collective reparation.

Lela Tsiskarishvili, Psychologist at Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT), Georgia

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

LT: I have been working with torture victims since 2000.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector?

LT: I was studying psychology, when, in 1998 one of my professors told me there was a part-time job opening at an NGO foundation. The salary was very low and they needed a Georgian- English interpreter, so it seemed like an ideal opportunity for a student like me. The organisation provided psychosocial rehabilitation services to Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia – those who were displaced as a result of the two wars in Georgia in the early 90s. In 2000, representatives of the IRCT came on a fact finding mission to Georgia as part of the IRCT’s regional strengthening programme with the idea to establish a torture rehabilitation centre in Georgia. My colleagues and representatives of the IRCT had several meetings, which led to the establishment of the GCRT. By then I was already a Masters student and was very happy when my colleagues offered me to move to GCRT together with them. I started as a documentarist and interpreter. From 2002 to 2004 I worked as a psychologist before I became the executive director of the organisation in 2005.

WWT: How many clients does your centre approx. treat/support each year?

LT: GCRT has regional offices in four regions of Georgia. GCRT provides rehabilitation services to people such as torture survivors, victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, war affected people, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. It serves up to 600 individuals per year. In case of sufficient funding for the work with torture survivors, GCRT provides assistance to 400 torture survivors and their family members per year.

WWT: Who are the clients and where do they come from?

LT: Our clients who are torture survivors are refugees, Internally Displaced Persons, persons tortured by the law enforcement agencies (mainly the penitentiary system and the police) and asylum seekers.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

LT: I have been working at GCRT for most of my adult life. From a small family type organisation, GCRT has grown into the largest trauma service in Georgia and is one of the key actors in fighting inhumane and degrading treatment, policy reform and bringing the voices of affected persons to the general public and decision makers. I have been part of this journey all along. My work is an integral and one of the most central parts of my life and I take pride in the amazing work of my colleagues at GCRT.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

LT: In our line of work we are not rescuers, we merely try to be there for people who have gone through the worse forms of interpersonal violence and who have been subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. We often spend sleepless nights thinking about how to help our clients transform their nightmares into dreams, how to replace the dominant experience of horror with love for their families and hope for the future. We ourselves are lost in this line of work. Working with those who have been affected by torture is a matter of passion and compassion – also about maintaining the delicate balance of being a therapist and a human rights activist. That is why, rather often, the process of rehabilitation of torture survivors is invisible among the human rights community. We work to touch upon the depths of human existence, yet most of the times, in order to protect our clients we cannot voice our opinion. However, the line of our work is ‘extremely loud and incredibly close’.

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