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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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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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5 victories for the anti-torture movement

We are constantly being presented with stories about people being tortured across the world. But there have also been a number of victories for the anti-torture movement that show the fight against torture is one that is always worth fighting. We bring together five of the most powerful stories of success.

1.    Yecenia Armenta Graciano

Mother of two Yecenia Armenta Graciano spent four long years in prison in northern Mexico, accused of murdering her husband and then tortured into signing a confession. For around 15 hours she was beaten, near-asphyxiated and raped until she signed the confession, while blind folded. No one questioned or checked her injuries and marks of torture and as time went on, her visible injuries faded and eventually disappeared.


Yecenia Armenta Graciano (Photo: Amnesty International)

After ongoing campaigning and pressure from several human rights organisations, the court allowed for two experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group to examine Yecenia. The findings contradicted those of the Office of the Mexican Attorney-General, which said there was no evidence of torture. As a result, the court ordered the State Attorney to further investigate the case and Yecenia was finally released on 7 June 2016.

She has previously said: “Freedom is vital for any human being. Freedom helps us breathe, it helps us live fully. I also want to be free, free to be myself, just the way I am.” She can now finally embrace her freedom, and her children.

2.    Jerryme Corre

29 March 2016 is now an historic date in the human rights history of the Philippines. It marks the date when a Philippines court made its first conviction under the country’s 2009 Anti-Torture Act. Bus driver Jerryme Corre spent more than four years in prison while on trial for crimes he has long denied committing.

While in custody Jerryme was brutally tortured by the police. He was electrocuted, punched and his life was constantly threatened. He finally received justice when the police officer involved was convicted and sentenced to a maximum of two years and one month imprisonment. The officer must also pay Jerryme damages amounting to 100,000 pesos. Another police officer faces the same charges but remains at large. The case gave the many human rights defenders working in the Philippines hope that things may be finally changing.

3.    Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr spent almost all of his teenage years at Guantánamo Bay. In 2002, the 15-year-old Canadian, was captured by US forces during a firefight in Afghanistan. He was taken to Guantánamo, where he pleaded guilty to throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier, but later said he had only done so because he saw no other means of making it out of the notorious detention camp.


Omar Khadr (Photo: Amnesty International)

He was transferred to a Canadian jail in 2012 and 12 years and nine months after he was captured, was released on bail in May 2015. While in Guantánamo, Omar alleges he was frequently tortured, forced to stand in stress positions and prevented from sleeping for more than three hours at a time for 21 days. He remains the only child soldier to be prosecuted in a military commission for war crimes. Omar is currently studying to become an emergency medical responder and continuing the process to appeal his US war crimes convictions.

4.    Rasmieh Odeh

Palestinian torture victim Rasmieh Odeh is accused of providing false statements on her immigration and naturalisation forms when applying for entry into the US. She checked “no” when asked whether she had ever been convicted but had been found guilty by an Israeli court of the bombing of an Israeli supermarket that killed two civilians in 1969. However, she denies she was involved in the bombings, saying she was tortured while in Israeli custody and forced to confess.

Having been originally convicted for immigration fraud in November 2014, Rasmieh’s conviction was overturned in February 2016 following an intervention from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and five other organisations, who argued that evidence of Rasmieh’s torture traumatisation should be admissible in the court’s determination of her ability to engage with the immigration process.

Her case now returns to the District Judge for a possible retrial in what could be a hugely positive step forward in how PTSD is understood and evaluated in torture related cases. In commenting on the case, IRCT Secretary General, Victor Madrigal-Borloz said, “Victims of torture can find it extremely difficult to speak about their experiences. Around the world, courts and administrative bodies are finally starting to recognise this fact and give consequence to it by ensuring that their processes reflect the specific psychological situation and needs of victims.”

5.    African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ resolution on the Right to Rehabilitation

The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ resolution on the Right to Rehabilitation was a landmark development for the anti-torture movement. The resolution calls on state parties to the African Charter to implement domestic laws prohibiting torture and to include clear provisions on torture victims’ right to rehabilitation. It is the first resolution adopted by the African Commission focusing specifically on the importance of the rehabilitation of torture victims.

Importantly, it specifies that states should ensure that all victims of torture and their dependents are offered appropriate medical care, have access to appropriate social rehabilitation and are provided with compensation. The IRCT, in collaboration with a group of international, regional and national NGOs, was involved in the development of the resolution, which the Commission adopted in Banjul, The Gambia in May 2015.

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Megan Berthold


In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?

In the latest installment, we speak with Megan Berthold, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work and a member of the Scientific Committee for the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ Scientific Symposium 2016. She speaks about the joy of seeing a torture victim receive protection as refugees (asylum in the US context), the fact that signatories of the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) continue to torture and the need for a global approach to educating people about torture and its effects.

Q: What is your profession and where do you work?Megan Berthold

I am a social worker and since 2011, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work in West Hartford, CT, USA.

Q: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I first started to work with refugees in 1984 as a volunteer teacher in the Tarshi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee Camp in Nepal. I began to work with survivors of the Cambodian genocide, and other Southeast Asian trauma survivors in 1987 during my final Masters in Social Work internship. I spent several years as a clinician and trainer in a camp for Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines and for displaced Cambodians on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1998 I began to work as a clinician and researcher with the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, California and I have been co-chairing the US National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs’ (NCTTP) Research and Data Project since 2008.

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

I “blame” it all on my brother Tim! During my last year of college, Tim was teaching in a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal. He sent me long fascinating letters every week detailing his experiences and encouraging me to come teach in the camp as a volunteer when I graduated. By the time I went there, Tim had moved to another part of Asia, but he had known I would find the work meaningful. I found my passion working cross-culturally with refugees who had fled persecution in their homelands.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?

As a long time clinician at the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles I had the honour of accompanying hundreds of torture survivors on their journey of healing. Obtaining asylum in the US was a big part of that process for many. I will never forget a gay man I worked with who had been tortured by soldiers in Uganda and had seen his lover murdered by a mob. It took many hours of therapy for him to feel able to tell his story of persecution in his asylum hearing. I remember the day that I was sequestered waiting to provide expert witness testimony in his asylum hearing. I heard a shriek from down the hall and I rushed out of the waiting room. My client ran to greet me. He lifted me up off the floor as he informed me that the judge had granted him asylum. “I never have to go back,” he told me. “I’m safe!”

Q: How has this work changed since you started?

We have learned a lot about the various methods of torture and the multifaceted effects on individuals, their families, their communities and society at large. I perceive that there is an increased appreciation for a holistic approach to rehabilitation, one that assesses risk and resilience, is community-based, and targets co-occurring mental and chronic physical health conditions.

In the US, clinical social workers have historically been under-represented in the work of torture treatment centres. That has begun to change as we have trained more social workers to work with this population, building on the expertise of trauma-informed social workers and augmenting their ability to provide clinical services and forensic evaluations and testimony with survivors of torture.

The concept of vicarious or secondary trauma did not exist when I started in this field. We have come a long way towards understanding the secondary effects of human rights-based work in the area of torture rehabilitation (both in terms of vicarious trauma and vicarious resilience). Our sector also better understands the role of self-care (and cultural differences related to this concept) and how vital it is for rights-based practitioners and communities to be able to engage in this work over the long-term.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?

We need more rigorous research to examine the effectiveness of treatment. We need to know more about what interventions work, for whom, under what conditions, and when. As long as systemic oppression and torture continue to be widespread, there will be more survivors of torture (along with many who lose their lives). This is unacceptable and calls for increased and concerted efforts to address the structural and systemic forces that promote the perpetration of torture and other human rights violations.

We must go beyond local or national efforts to be successful. To me, this is one of the important benefits of having an international torture rehabilitation movement and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). That’s why the IRCT Scientific Symposium in December 2016 could not come at a better time.

Efforts to secure adequate funding and policies to support rehabilitation efforts will be furthered by a strong grounding in science. I expect that among the important outcomes will be the dissemination of valuable clinical and research knowledge about effective interventions within the torture treatment field and related sectors.

In addition, best practices from around the world regarding how to promote and secure the right to rehabilitation will be shared, enhancing the possibility of furthering this right.

Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?

From where I sit, I am painfully aware that torture is a widespread problem and not a thing of the past. Within the NCTTP, we are serving survivors of torture who fled to the US from more than 120 countries. The majority of the countries from where these survivors fled are signatories to the UNCAT and yet they continue to torture.

Torture is never necessary, is not effective, and is always a violation of human rights. It has serious consequences for individuals, their families and society. It also has serious consequences for those who perpetrate torture and for those who turn a blind eye to its practice.

In order to create a world that promotes and realises the rights of all humans, we must expose the practice of torture, condemn it, and actively work to end it in all its forms. I invite you to join me, the UNCAT, the NCTTP and the IRCT, and millions of activists and survivors worldwide in this effort.

Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?

There are many avenues available to support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement. In addition to better educating ourselves about torture and its effects, we can educate our families, neighbours and the public at large. We can work with others within our own sectors to support the movement, perhaps by joining with the USHRN or a similar network. We can be part of person-centred organised approaches against structural forces and state-led actions that contribute to the problem of torture. Finally, we can provide financial or volunteer support to a torture rehabilitation programme in our region or country.

To find out more about the IRCT Scientific Symposium and Scientific Committee, visit


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What 2016 has in store for the torture rehabilitation movement

There is no doubt that 2016 will be another significant year for the global torture rehabilitation movement, presenting both challenges and opportunities for the sector. In this blog, we look at what 2016 has in store for us, listing some of the key highlights and challenges coming up.

Violence in connection with upcoming elections

From Samoa to Bolivia, millions of people around the world will be participating in elections this year. While most elections are expected to be peaceful, countries like Uganda and Haiti have both seen an increase in violence and human rights violations in connection with their upcoming elections. In Haiti the violence intensified after widespread allegations of fraud, and the country’s presidential runoff was eventually cancelled. In Uganda, the country’s former prime minister and current presidential candidate, Amama Mbabazi, recently accused President Yoweri Museveni of using murder, torture and violence to curtail growing support for the opposition.

Looking elsewhere, Gambia, which has a long record of torture and other human rights violations, is also due for an election in 2016, and in the DRC and Somalia there are concerns that upcoming elections could trigger violence and unrest.

The pre-election violence is a clear reminder of the need to take precautionary measures and to be ready to respond with investigation and rehabilitation.


Torture – The International Outlaw exhibition, which will go on the road in 2016

An exhibition: Torture – The International Outlaw

Marking last year’s Human Rights Day, a group of anti-torture organisations launched an exhibition called ‘Torture – The International Outlaw’ at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The exhibition showcases the history and the hope found in the fight against torture and gives visitors a chance to learn about torture survivors’ stories. Later this year, Europeans will also get a chance to visit the exhibition when it opens in Brussels and then goes on the road to be displayed at several key events in 2016.

10 years of OPCAT

In June this year it will be 10 years since the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – also known as OPCAT – entered into force.

The OPCAT is one of the most important international legal instruments in the protection and prevention of torture around the world. Under the OPCAT, the United Nations’ Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) obtains unrestricted access to places around the world where persons may be deprived of their liberty, their installations and facilities and to all relevant information.

26 June

26 June is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. On this date, anti-torture organisations and human rights activists around the world organise campaigns, activities and other events in support of torture survivors and in commemoration of victims.

Every year, there are a wide array of events, and this year is no exception. For example, the IRCT and its members will be organising lots of activities as part of their global 26 June campaign. The best way to stay up to date with upcoming events is to follow the IRCT on Facebook and Twitter.

Olympics: Torture and ill treatment of detainees in Brazil

With only six months to go until the opening ceremony in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil has bigger things to worry about than getting ready for the 2016 Olympics. As Human Rights watch noted in its latest World Report, “chronic human rights problems plague Brazil, including unlawful police killings, prison overcrowding, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees.”

Following a visit in October 2015 by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), the head of the delegation and Secretary-General of the IRCT Víctor Madrigal-Borloz noted that while Brazil had made efforts to tackle the problems, many of the issues the SPT highlighted during its visit in 2011 had still not been addressed.

The preparations for the Olympics have also been linked to widespread human rights abuses. Unfortunately, it is not the first time that Brazil’s human rights record has been criticised in connection with a global sports event. According to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, the country’s state security forces injured or detained 178 journalists who covered demonstrations in various parts of the country in the year leading up to the 2014 Football World Cup.

Electing a new Special Rapporteur on Torture

Also in 2016, the UN Human Rights Council will be electing a new Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SRT). As only the sixth person to take on this important role, the new SRT will replace Argentinian human rights lawyer and professor, Juan Méndez who has been the SRT since 2010. The election will take place in September as part of the UN Human Rights Council’s September session.

The new SRT will be taking office at a time when the anti-torture movement is increasingly focused on putting victims at the centre of its work.


Delivering on the Right to Rehabilitation through science

The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and Mexican rehabilitation centre Colectivo Contra la Tortura (CCTI) are hosting a global interdisciplinary scientific symposium from 5 to 7 December in Mexico City.

The Symposium, which is the tenth of its kind, is expected to be a unique and exciting opportunity for the global torture rehabilitation sector to come together to exchange experiences and research on developments in the rehabilitation of survivors of torture. The event will bring together medical professionals, researchers and experts from within the torture rehabilitation sector, as well as those working in closely related sectors, such as public mental health, violence against women and protecting persons with disabilities.

To find out more go to:



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2015 – A year in review

As we reach the end of 2015, we at World Without Torture look back at some of the stories we covered in the last year.

It has been a busy year where we have blogged about a diverse mix of topics so if some of your favourites are missing, please feel free to mention them in the comments.

2015 was a year of tragedies and triumphs, where we witnessed ongoing human suffering but also how defiant and determined people can be in the face of adversity. Through all of this, your support and participation in the fight to ensure human rights is something that we continue to appreciate enormously.

We look forward to seeing you in 2016 and wish you a very Happy New Year!

26 June

26 June activities at Gwangju Trauma Center in South Korea

7 myths about torture

The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. In this blog we debunked seven of the most common myths about torture.

Taking a creative approach to 26 June

Just as we had seen in previous years, creativity played a big role in marking the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June. Thousands of people across the globe joined the torture rehabilitation movement in showcasing both the resilience and creativity of survivors and caregivers alike. We shared some images from the day, check them out here.

Forced virginity testing still a problem

Forced virginity testing is a serious human rights violation and at its worst it constitutes rape and torture. This is how a group of experts described the highly controversial practice that is used to determine a woman’s virginity, when at the start of 2015, Indonesia made headlines around the world when it emerged that the national government subjected female applicants for Indonesia’s National Police to “discriminatory and degrading virginity tests.” Read the full story here.

On the Forefront: Helping torture survivors in San Diego

At IRCT member centre, Survivors of Torture International (SURVIVORS) it is the little things that matter. Something as small as a bus ticket can mean the difference between treatment and no treatment for torture victims. In a year where funding cuts threatened to close and did close many rehabilitation centres, we spoke to SURVIVORS staff to find out how these cuts affect both services and clients. Read the full blog here.

From Cameroon to Pakistan – Empowering female victims of torture and rape

Every day across the globe, women and girls are tortured and ill-treated. For some, rape is part of their ordeal and their rehabilitation path is often solitary, while governments, communities and families struggle to respond to their needs. In this blog we looked at how, with the support of a generous donor, 16 IRCT rehabilitation centres in 14 countries are helping thousands of these women and girls to take control of their lives through a range of activities.

26 June Campaign: How two survivors of Rwandan Genocide overcame the scars of the past

As part of the 26 June Campaign we decided it was time to put a face to torture victims and reclaim their need for and right to rehabilitation – a right guaranteed under the UN Convention against Torture. This blog is about Bernard and Emmanuel, two men who have worked with rehabilitation centres to rebuild their lives following the torture and trauma they endured during the Rwandan Genocide.

Treating refugees: How NGOs are supporting refugees in Serbia

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have already passed through Serbia as they continue on their trek to EU countries such as Germany, Austria and Norway. We spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at Serbian centre International Aid Network (IAN), which has been providing medical first aid and psychosocial support to refugees through a Mobile Team Unit in parks and shelters in Belgrade and at the Croatian border. Read more about IAN’s work here.

Four women in the fight against torture

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we remembered the struggles women have endured around the world and celebrated their achievements by focusing on four inspirational women. These four women have seen or experienced the horrors of torture as an advocate, a caregiver and a victim. Read the full blog here.

An alternative way to treat victims of torture

“I am tired of it, tired of my body. Tired of my soul. I can only see that it’s getting more and more sick as time goes by.” A lot of research has been done on the link between physical exercise and mental health. Yet the focus has largely been on how an active lifestyle may help alleviate symptoms such as depression and chronic pain. In this blog we learned how a group of Danish researchers have gone in a different direction, introducing traumatised refugees to the relatively unknown Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT).

Fighting Torture: Q&A

Towards the end of the year we kicked off our Fighting Torture Q&A series, with an interview with Asger Kjærum from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) about his work as a human rights advocate, how dinner conversations at home shaped his interest in the health and human rights sectors and how torture is still prevalent in too many countries around the world. Read the full blog here.

Voices from Nepal: Life amid the rubble and the ruins

In April 2015 a devastating earthquake ripped through Nepal, leaving a trail of death and destruction. With a death toll in the thousands and more casualties to come, the impoverished kingdom struggled to provide shelter and relief to the survivors. Our blog at the time shared the belief of IRCT member centre, Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT) that Nepal’s need for help extended far beyond the immediate aid efforts. Read more here.

Europe’s Narrow Lead on Prosecuting CIA Torture

In August, regular guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign wrote about the few, but encouraging efforts in Europe to prosecute those believed to have been complicit in the notorious CIA rendition programme. Find out more here.


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How empowering torture survivors to narrate their stories can rehabilitate and inspire

“During the ceremony I laughed again, and I became aware of my desire to teach everybody [about human rights].”

Encouraging and supporting torture survivors in telling their stories has long been recognised as an important element of rehabilitation. However, a new study on the effectiveness of testimonial therapy (TT) on the social participation and wellbeing of Indian survivors of torture and organised violence has found that the process can also bring communities together and lead to participants becoming human rights activists.

TT is a human rights-based psychosocial intervention, which can be used by non-professional counsellors. This means it can be especially useful in countries where there are not many trained psychotherapists or social workers.


The new issue of Torture Journal is now available from

The survivors tell their story, which is recorded and jointly edited by a counsellor, a note taker and the survivors themselves. The story is then presented to the survivors in a testimony ceremony, where they are honoured in front of their community.

If the survivors feel comfortable with it, their story will then be used as part of awareness-raising and advocacy activities.

 “After [receiving] testimonial therapy I became a human rights activist. I now work in the village to promote human rights awareness by encouraging the villagers to report any incidence of ill-treatment or other problems,” explained one participant.

The study, which was carried out by researchers affiliated with DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, the Peoples Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) and the University of Copenhagen focuses on a type of TT adapted to the Indian context, which has a strong community celebration approach.

The ceremony in the community marks the the turning point in the healing process, where the person makes the transition from the role of torture victim, to an empowered and recognised survivor of torture.

Community workers and human rights activists working with PVCHR chose 474 Indian survivors of torture and ill treatment from the regions of Uttar, Pradesh and Jharkhand for the study, and they received TT from 2010 to 2012.

The study found that the participants showed huge improvements in social and psychological wellbeing. The proportion of participants with a high risk of depression decreased from 89.6% initially to 30.8% one to two months after the last session.

By sharing their trauma story, survivors could overcome their distress and become more self-confident. They were also better able to take on more responsibility in their family and community.

“Before testimony [therapy] victims feel lonely and they do not tell their pain to anybody… But after testimony therapy I [put] outside my pain and share my story to encourage others. It is [a] very good process to give honor in front of [the] community and I feel that I have [got] my own dignity.”

While the study found that TT is indeed an effect method of rehabilitation, it also recommends that going forward more research needs to be done on how to build on its potential to empower and mobilise entire communities.

To read the latest issue of Torture Journal, click here.

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Treating refugees: How NGOs are supporting refugees in Serbia

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have already passed through Serbia as they continue on their trek to EU countries such as Germany, Austria and Norway. Despite the fact that weather conditions are rapidly deteriorating, the numbers are not decreasing. We spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ (IRCT) Serbian member centre International Aid Network (IAN), which has been providing medical first aid and psychosocial support to refugees through a Mobile Team Unit in parks and shelters in Belgrade and at the Croatian border.

“I have an image in my head of a 16-year-old Afghan boy, who is travelling alone. He was beaten by ISIS on the border of Iran and Pakistan. He has just 26 euro and a ruined pair of shoes. I keep thinking about that boy. How is he going to pass through two or three more countries without money?”

Bojana has many similar stories that have stayed with her. She has been working as a psychologist with IAN’s Mobile Team Unit, along with a medical doctor, nurse and field manager since July, dealing with some of the many refugees that pass through Serbia in less than 24 hours.

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

Refugees in Principovac (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

As there are now just a small number of refugees in Belgrade, the Mobile Team Unit makes the four-hour round trip to the border each day.

“At the moment we are working with refugees at the Berkasovo-Babska border crossing. At the beginning we worked in a park in Belgrade, which was the biggest informal gathering place of refugees, and in Principovac, a refugee shelter near the Croatian border.”

While many organisations provide medical and legal aid to refugees, IAN is the only one providing psychological support. Bojana explains that the time the unit spends with each person depends on whether the border is open or not.

“If the border is open they are in the hurry to cross it. Refugees don’t have time to talk. But if they are waiting for the border to open or are settled in a shelter, the situation is completely different. They have a great need to share their story and are very thankful for understanding and sympathy.”

More than 218,000 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in October, according to the UNHCR. This almost equalled the number of crossings for all of 2014. Many of the refugees passing through Serbia have taken a boat from Turkey to Greece and travelled through Macedonia.

“They have to pay 1,200 euro per person to get on the boat. Very often the boats are overcrowded and sink, and sometimes they are in the sea for hours before they are rescued. Many smugglers throw their belongings in the sea, because the boat is too heavy. Some of them told me, ‘You look death in the eyes’, says Bojana.

The most common alternative path for refugees is through Bulgaria, especially for those fleeing Afghanistan. This has proven to be a dangerous route as many of the people Bojana has spoken to allege they have been put in prison for crossing the border illegally and the police have beaten them and stolen their money and phones. Unsurprisingly, many also allege they are victims of torture.

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

“Some of them were tortured in the country of origin and during their transit in Iran and Bulgaria. In Syria for example, many refugees were tortured in some kind of prison by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The methods are brutal. Many of them told me that they were tortured with electro shocks. In Afghanistan, many refugees were tortured by ISIS or the Taliban,” explains Bojana.

It is clear that these refugees need rehabilitation services, but for the time being their focus is on getting to safety and on starting a new life, particularly as winter starts to close in.
“They are helpless, looking for a better life, frightened that they are going to be returned (Afghans) or that Germany is going to close the border. They have only one wish, to continue with their journey and to reach an EU country,” says Bojana.

“When basic needs are not satisfied, like food, clothes and shelter, a person cannot deal with emotions or trauma. For me it is ok to be there for them, to help them with their basic needs, and of course to be there for them if they want to talk, to share their problems and traumatic experiences, and to calm them if they are fearful.”

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Europe’s Narrow Lead on Prosecuting CIA Torture

In her latest blog, guest blogger Aisha Maniar of the London Guantánamo Campaign writes about the few, but encouraging efforts in Europe to prosecute those believed to have been complicit in the notorious CIA rendition programme.

The December 2014 publication of the redacted findings and conclusions of the US Senate Select Committee investigation into the CIA’s use of torture shed further light on and confirmed some of the worst practices of the extraordinary rendition programme, leading to calls for prosecution of those involved.

Eight months on, little has changed. On 24 June, a coalition of over 100 groups worldwide sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability, prosecution and reparations for CIA torture.

Throughout the CIA’s long history of ‘coercive forms of interrogation’, prosecutions have been few. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, there have been some encouraging moves against those believed to have been involved in the rendition programme.

On 23 June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) heard a case brought against Italy by an Egyptian national for its collusion in his abduction and ‘rendition’ to Egypt in 2003 where he was detained illegally and tortured for several months. Italy denies the claims and the judgment is pending, but it is a unique case as in 2012, in domestic proceedings, the Italian Supreme Court’s final judgment in the related criminal case saw 23 US citizens convicted in absentia for his kidnapping; prison sentences and fines were imposed.

This is the first and only successful prosecution against the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme anywhere. The ramifications of this hit home a year later, in 2013, when convicted former CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady was arrested, as he transited through Panama, pending extradition to Italy to serve his eight-year sentence, although he was released the next day. He has admitted his role in the operation and that it was illegal.

This is the third such case to be heard before the ECtHR; previous cases heard against Macedonia and Poland have found both states guilty of breaches of the absolute prohibition on torture under the European Convention on Human Rights, with both ordered to pay compensation. Further cases are pending against Romania and Lithuania.


Aside from one other case recently reopened before the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights, following new revelations against Djibouti, this is as far as international legal efforts to prosecute extraordinary rendition have gotten. Although neither court has jurisdiction over the US, these cases reveal the global extent of the extraordinary rendition programme, which would have been impossible without the collusion of so many states.

The Torture Report findings have also led the European Parliament to announce the reopening of its investigation into member state complicity in rendition in February 2015 and urging states to investigate and prosecute allegations.

Domestic efforts are still underway in some parts of Europe. As part of an ongoing criminal investigation into at least six alleged torture flights through Scottish airspace, police in Scotland are seeking access to a full non-redacted copy of the Torture Report.

In Spain, an ongoing criminal investigation brought by a number of former Guantánamo prisoners under universal jurisdiction laws was recently closed following restrictive changes to the law, but a number of NGOs have appealed this decision.

There is still much work to be done. Elsewhere, political pressure and state secrecy have seen prosecutions end prematurely or shut down. Denial remains a popular option and impunity reigns.

While the focus is on the US, the involvement of its allies must not be ignored. Investigation, prosecution and accountability matter, not just to draw a line under the crimes of the past, but to ensure they are not still occurring or will again in future.

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Three months on: Torture rehabilitation centres helping earthquake victims in Nepal

Three months after a series of devastating earthquakes shook Nepal to its core, the country is still scrambling to rebuild. According to Red Cross, one in four Nepalese have been affected, many of whom are suffering from the trauma that arises from experiencing a natural disaster this size. Along with other organisations, two IRCT members are on the ground, working tirelessly to support victims of the earthquake with psychological first aid.

April’s earthquakes took the lives of more than 8,000 Nepalese and left hundreds of thousands injured and homeless.

“Many people lost their life when their houses collapsed,” Jamuna Poudyal from Kathmandu based organisation Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT) told us back in April, trying to comprehend the sheer scale of the disaster.

“People in the Kathmandu Valley still feel that their life is in danger because of the many aftershocks,” she explained.

Three months on and people are still suffering from psychological problems, while trying to rebuild their lives.

Responding to the need for Psychological First Aid (PFA), CVICT and another local torture rehabilitation centre Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal (TPO Nepal) are on the ground, supporting thousands of earthquake victims.

With staff working across the major affected districts, the two centres have helped thousands of victims, by offering various services such as PFA, clinical support and psychosocial counselling.

TPO Nepal Training of Trainers and Supervisors in Kathmandu. Courtesy of TPO Nepal

TPO Nepal Training of Trainers and Supervisors in Kathmandu. Courtesy of TPO Nepal

“We train mental health and psychosocial support frontline workers in Psychological First Aid that includes basic psychosocial support, listening skills and referrals,” explains TPO Nepal’s Executive Manager Suraj Koirala, “they then train non-mental health experts, such as volunteers, NGO staff, teachers, health workers and social workers in psychological first aid and other mental health and psychosocial care.”

By including training in its earthquake response, TPO Nepal is able to address the urgent and short-term psychological needs of those affected. At this point, the centre has already reached out to more than 10,000 people.

TPO Nepal is also operating a toll free helpline for victims of the earthquake. Managed by psychosocial counsellors, the helpline offers support to people in need.

“We encourage people to call the number if they experience emotional distress or grief; feel weak or have a lot of body pains; or if they are struggling with thoughts about hurting themselves; or if there are psychosocial problems in the family,” explains Suraj.

While the world’s attention is no longer on Nepal, organisations like CVICT and TPO Nepal continue to help people whose lives were shattered by the earthquakes.

“The demand for mental health and psychosocial services continues to be high. These people have experienced death and destruction and now they are trying to rebuild their lives. But without mental health and psychosocial support they may not overcome their trauma,” notes Suraj.

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