AOHR report on torture in Egypt

Police beating demonstrator in Egypt

Many human rights report suggest Egyptian police brutality is systematic and not isolated incidents

Torture in Egypt is out of control and is one of many elements destroying the fabric of Egyptian society, shredding all remnants of trust in the government, and pushing the Egyptian people to the edge of despair.

I am of Egyptian-American descent but have never lived in Egypt, though I visited in the summers when I was a child. I have many friends who spent much of their lives in Egypt and who return periodically to visit. I was talking to one of these friends recently and he was complaining about corruption in Egypt. I said, “It sounds like the country is really going downhill.” He replied, “It’s not going downhill. It’s gone, gone. There is nothing good left except the people themselves.”

But I’m not talking here about individual rants or subjective viewpoints. I’m talking about one specific issue, torture, and the overwhelming evidence that this abominable act has become the default M.O. of the Egyptian government.

A 2009 report by the London-based Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR) says that torture is systematically being used on all levels of Egyptian society including women, children, elderly men and youth, regardless of their social status.

The organization submitted a complete file which includes the names of victims and their torturers to the United Nations Human Rights Council and other concerned international bodies.

While previously restricted to detention centers, torture is now widely used at police stations and illegal detention areas, said the report, adding that it is not only being used on the political opposition, but also on criminal suspects and others who are not suspected of a crime.

(I have even read of fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters being detained and tortured when coming to the police station to inquire about detained family members).

The report also points out that 285 instances of torture have been recorded, resulting in 119 deaths over a nine-year period. The number of forced disappearances has also increased, with 73 people disappearing between 1992 and 2009. Of the 73 disappearances, 56 are still missing.

How much more must the Egyptian people suffer at the hands of tyrants and torturers?

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Support Umida Akhmedova

Umida Akhmedova

Umida Akhmedova

Please support Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova, who has been charged with defamation for publishing photos of the everyday lives of the Uzbek people.

Sign this Online petition – Stop the criminal suit against prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova.

Also please call or email the Uzbekistan embassy in your country and ask them to stop the persecution of Umida Akhmedova.

See the bottom of this post for contact information for the Uzbekistan embassy and President, and for a sample letter you can send.

Email the press office of the President of Uzbekistan, Mr. Islam Karimov:

presidents_office@press-service.uz

Why Should We Care?

Although this blog is titled, “Abolish Torture”, I am also concerned about political imprisonment, attacks on journalists and human rights activists, and laws curbing freedom of expression.

Why? Because when freedom of expression is denied, dictatorial governments can inflict any sort of barbarity on their people, and no one can speak out. No voice can be raised.

The Accusation

Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova published an album of photos in 2007 called “Women and Men: from Dawn to Dusk”. It contains over 100 photos of Uzbek people – rural people, in particular – often engaging in traditional rites and customs.

The Uzbekistan authorities have accused Ms. Akhmedova of portraying the Uzbek people as backward. She has been charged with defamation and insulting Uzbek traditions. The general prosecutor’s office in the capital, Tashkent, set up a special commission to study the photographs, and the commission subsequently decided that the photographs distort reality, ignoring the modern aspects of life in the Uzbek capital, and focusing on images that portray Uzbekistan’s people as poor, suffering, unattractive or primitive.

Umida Akhmedova is now awaiting trial and has been banned from leaving the country. If convicted she faces up to six months in prison or three years of labor.

Umida Akhmedova

Umida Akhmedova

According to the information received, on December 16, 2009 Ms. Umida Ahmedova was informed by the Mirobod Department of Internal Affairs (RDIA) that she was facing charges of “slander” and “insult” (respectively Articles 139 and 140 of the Uzbek Criminal Code) of the Uzbek people.

Those charges were brought by the Tashkent Prosecutor’s Office, in relation to her book of photographs entitled “Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk”, which was published in 2007 and contains 110 photographs reflecting the life and traditions of Uzbek people, as well as to her documentary films “Women and Men in Customs” and “Rituals and Virginity Code”. She is facing up to six months’ imprisonment or from two to three years of “correctional work”.

These charges follow an investigation carried out in November 2009 by the Uzbek Agency of Media and Information into several books and films on gender issues that were produced in collaboration with the Gender Programme of the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent.

Umida says that the first time she was called by police was on November 17, 2009. Captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov invited her to Mirabod RDIA to give a statement regarding her “Women and Men: from Dawn to Dusk” album.

According to Umida Akhmedova, captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov, investigator of the Tashkent [EN] city police department, told her that the criminal charges have been filed against all local authors who cooperated with the Gender Program of the Swiss Embassy. There is no information on other authors against whom the charges were filed.

The investigator interviewed Umida for two hours and asked questions related to Akhmedova’s participation in the production of the photo album and such documentary films as “Men and Women: Rites and ritual” and “The Burden of Virginity”.

“He does not even know what the ethnography is,” Umida said. “I said I did ethnography. He asked ‘What is that?’

“I said, ‘In my work I am mainly interested in the ethnographic side of people’s lifestyle. I photograph ethnic rites, traditions and weddings.

“Where is the slander?’ The question remained without answer.”

Photographs Matter

I agree that many of Ms. Akhmedova’s photos portray Uzbek people and customs negatively. But that’s not the point. The freedom to take and publish photographs is important.

A photograph titled, “Migrant Mother”, taken in 1936 in the USA, triggered a public outcry and spurred federal relief to suffering migrants. A photograph titled, “”Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief”, taken in Vietnam in 1968 by Eddie Adams, played a part in turning the American public against the Vietnam War. A photograph of starving children in Biafra (Africa) in 1969 shocked the world and prompted an outpouring of aid. The photograph of a Chinese man standing fearlessly before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 gave hope to Chinese people struggling for freedom. The photographs of American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib woke up the American public to the dangers of neglecting human rights standards.

Photographs matter, and the freedom to take and publish them must not be curtailed.

Exposing Desperate Poverty

Global Voices Online writes,

Many believe that the main reason for prosecution of photographer Umida Akhmedova is her active civil position.Albatrossdoc writes (ru) that Umida Akhmedova and her husband Oleg Karpov (director of Tashkent Film Museum) were way too active for Uzbekistan – making films, photos and showing social topical movies in the Film Museum.

Albatrossdoc guesses that there could be people, who didn’t like it. The Museum has been closed for the last three months and no official explanation was given.

Having a look at Umida’s pictures one can see that she makes photos of the ordinary Uzbek people. Many of them live in poverty – and many are in desperate poverty.

Exposing this poverty is necessary to spur change. It must not be considered a crime.

Here are some of Ms. Ahmedova’s photos:

Some People to Contact:

President Islam Karimov
Office of the President
43 Uzbekistan Avenue
700163 Tashkent
Email: presidents_office@press-service.uz

Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the United States:

Phone: (202) 887-5300
Fax: (202) 293-6804
Mailing Address:
Embassy of Uzbekistan
1746 Massachusetts Avenue,
N.W., Washington, D.C.
20036-1903
Email: info@uzbekistan.org

Sample Letter

This is an example of a letter you can send to the embassy or email to the President of Uzbekistan. Feel free to personalize it to reflect your thoughts or concerns:

Dear Sirs,

I am writing concerning the Impending trial of Umida Akhmedova, as reported by many news outlets including the BBC:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8473285.stm

As believer in Human Rights, I feel it would be a serious injustice to prosecute a photographer for such documentary photography. Ms. Akhmedova’s prosecution will be rightly seen as an offense against freedom of expression, free press and free speech. I particularly feel it would be unfortunate considering that “Improvement in human rights now a top government priority” (your website: http://www.uzbekistan.org/social_issues/ ).

I don’t agree that the photos accompanying the BBC story defame and insult Uzbek traditions. I saw a series of beautiful photos illustrating a picturesque country with interesting social customs and sights.

Even if it is true that some photos depict poverty and hardship, the appropriate response to this is to work to alleviate these conditions, not to persecute the photographer.

Please end the unfortunate and unjust prosecution of Umida Akhmedova.

Sincerely

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Training for Disaster Relief

An injured child at a Hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Photograph: Ivanoh Demers/AP

An injured child at a Hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Photograph: Ivanoh Demers/AP

Although this website was founded to work to end torture, another of my concerns is disaster relief. Every time a terrible natural disaster strikes, such as the tsunami in Indonesia several years ago, the flood in New Orleans, or the current earthquake crisis in Haiti, I find my heart breaking as I view images of the terrible suffering in these places.

I can’t just stand by. I have to do something to help these poor people. I put up links on some of my high-traffic websites to donate funds for emergency relief in Haiti; but in addition to funding, there is a need for help on the ground.

I visited several websites today trying to find out if anyone in my area was putting together relief teams to go to Haiti. What I found is that disaster relief agencies don’t want untrained people walking in off the street. They need people with medical training; people experienced in fields such as construction, electrical engineering and civil engineering; and individuals with training in disaster relief skills such as search and rescue.

So, I have decided to pursue such training. I do not know where to find it. I will inquire with the local universities, and with international aid agencies.

The next time a terrible event like this occurs, I don’t want to be on the sidelines, wishing there was more I could do. I realize that helping directly in such situations might be traumatic. If enough people were already involved, I would not feel the need to participate directly. But the need is never met in these situations. Hundreds of thousands are sleeping in the street in Haiti. Days on, most have received no food or water. Bodies are everywhere – guaranteeing the spread of disease – and people are still trapped in the rubble. The need is not being met.

Who will meet the need, if not you and me?

Lastly, I urge Muslims and all compassionate people to respond and contribute to the humanitarian aid appeal by Islamic Relief, an Islamic relief organization. The vast majority of funds donated go directly to assistance, not for administrative costs.

Please donate generously in alleviating the suffering of people in Haiti.

You can donate through Islamic Relief USA’s website here:

Haiti Earthquake Emergency Donations

Checks can be mailed to:

Islamic Relief USA, P.O. Box 5640, Buena Park, CA 90622.

In the UK donate here:

Islamic Relief UK Haiti Donations

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Waterboarding: a poem by Dr. Ingrid Mattson

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Islamic scholar, author, professor, and first female president of ISNA

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Islamic scholar, author, professor, and first female president of ISNA

Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Director of Islamic Chaplaincy Program, Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, and both the first female and first convert president of the Islamic Society of North America

WATERBOARDING
By Ingrid Mattson

I used to love swimming underwater
Diving down deep
To touch mossy stones
At the bottom of the river
Holding my breath until air exploded
through tightly closed lips
And the rock bass swam away
Spiny fins glinting in the filtered sunlight

I used to love swimming underwater
Until Joey drowned
Dear sweet brother
Pulled down by the Kicking Horse River

For one year after that
I would panic

When the water from the shower
Dripped over my face
Fearing when I held my breath
That I would never breathe again

Waterboarding
Sounds like fun
A vile euphemism
For making someone think he is drowning

About as fun as a kick in the ribs
A blow to the head
A shock to the genitals
Sodomy with a billy club

My 14 year old daughter saw the pictures
When she opened Yahoo to get her mail
She sobbed for three days
Her anxiety over cruel remarks from classmates
Now exploding into fully-formed terror
They could do this to us

But even worse
That anyone could do it
Her faith diminished

God can only be good
If there is some good in us
The faith of children
Treads water
Waiting for the life-guard in us

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Torture Produces False Information

Torture is immoral and ineffective. Research shows that torture damages the brain, resulting in memory loss, false confessions and misinformation.

Torture is immoral and ineffective. Research shows that torture damages the brain, resulting in memory loss, false confessions and misinformation.

Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin have found that torture and stress techniques used in interrogation compromise brain function and damage the parts of the brain where memory reside. This could result in the tortured person giving false information, confusing reality with fantasy, repeating the torturer’s assertions as fact, or simply saying what he thinks the torturer wants to hear in order to end the torture.

Shane O’Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, published his review in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Science. O’Mara examined the legal memos released by the U.S. government in April detailing U.S. “enhanced” interrogation techniques from 2002 to 2005. O’Mara says of the ten particular torture techniques that he studied, “they seem based on the idea that repeatedly inducing shock, stress, anxiety, disorientation and lack of control is more effective than standard interrogatory techniques in making suspects reveal information.”

Torture Produces Misinformation and False Confessions

However, O’Mara said it’s likely that such techniques will result in false information.

“In sum, coercive interrogations involving extreme stress are unlikely, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge, to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory,” he writes. “On the contrary, these techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function.”

“Waterboarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”

Professor O’Mara said contemporary neuroscientific models of human memory showed that the hippocampus and prefrontal cortices of the brain were very important.

The stress hormone, cortisol, binds to receptors in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex increasing neuronal excitability which compromises the normal functioning of the brain if it is sustained.

And other stress hormones called catecholamines could lead to an increase in blood pressure and heart rate which could cause long-term damage to the brain and body if they were maintained at a high level for a long time.

Other Researchers Agree

The BBC Online reports on this issue:

Dr David Harper, a clinical psychologist from the University of East London, said the study appeared to be consistent with previous research on memory and trauma and with evidence of previous torture survivors and those in the intelligence community critical of psychological torture techniques.

“Believers in coercive interrogation tend to believe that people will ‘tell the truth’ as a result but much evidence suggests that people will, in fact, tell those conducting the torture what they think will make the torture stop.

“This has been noted as a danger by commentators from the Spanish Inquisition, through the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s to the present day.”

Dr Stuart Turner of the Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law said: “There is now very strong evidence that torture and harsh interrogation techniques may disrupt normal memory processes.

“With this in mind, it is also unreasonable to expect torture survivors to be able to give consistent and complete accounts of their experiences.

“This is highly relevant, for example, to the process of decision making for asylum seekers, arriving in the UK seeking refuge and for whom credibility is often a central issue.

“It appears that O’Mara’s review paper supports the contention that to expect consistent memories in asylum applicants is unreasonable and therefore that inconsistencies should certainly not automatically be interpreted as evidence of fabrication.”

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BBC poll: World against torture, Israel in favor

An Israeli defense forces soldier points his gun at a Palestinian boy. Beatings, torture and illegal killings by the IDF are commonplace.

An Israeli defense forces soldier points his gun at a Palestinian boy. Beatings, torture and illegal killings by the IDF are commonplace.

Poll of 25 countries reveals that the majority of world’s population opposes torturing prisoners suspected of terror involvement. In Israel, over half of Jewish population supports using torture to get information from terrorists, while most Muslims oppose it.

Reprinted from Ynet, Published: 10.19.06

Nearly a third of people worldwide support the use of torture against terror suspects in some circumstances, a BBC survey suggests.

Over 27,000 people in 25 countries, including Israel, were asked if torture was acceptable if it could provide information to save innocent lives. Fifty-nine percent were opposed to torture, 29 percent replied it an acceptable means to combat terrorism.

Respondents were asked which position was closer to their own views:

a) Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights standards against torture.

b) Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives.

During a press conference held by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, actors demonstrate the Israeli Shin Bet torture method known as "Banana b'kiseh," where a detainee with hands and feet cuffed is painfully stretched, in the shape of a banana, over a chair by his jailer.

During a press conference held by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, actors demonstrate the Israeli Shin Bet torture method known as "Banana b'kiseh," where a detainee with hands and feet cuffed is painfully stretched, in the shape of a banana, over a chair by his jailer.

In Israel a majority of Jewish respondents in Israel, 53 percent, agreed that the governments should be allowed to use some degree of torture to obtain information from terror suspects, while 39 percent were completely opposed and wanted clear rules against it. However the Muslim population in Israel polled overwhelmingly against any use of torture.

58 percent against torture in US

And what do countries who have suffered terror attacks think? In the United States 58 percent oppose torture, 36 percent are in favor and 6 percent haven’t made up their minds yet.

In Britain, where a large scale terror plot was recently thwarted, 72 percent are against retrieving information from terror suspects through torture while 24 percent are in favor. Similar figures were apparent in Spain, where 65 percent oppose terror and only 16 percent condone it.

The poll was also conducted in Muslim countries. In Iraq, which suffers daily terror attacks, 42 percent are in favor of torturing terror suspects, 55 percent are against it. In Egypt the figure drops to 25 percent in favor and 62 percent against. The rest are undecided.

In three other countries, besides Israel, less than half the population polled against torturing terror suspects. In China – 49 percent were against and 37 percent were in favor.

In Russia, 43 percent polled against and 37 percent were in favor. In India, which has also suffered from terror attacks the data is intriguing – 23 percent are against torture and 23 percent are in favor of the tactic. The remaining 45 percent have yet to make up their minds.

Editor’s Note: there is no shortage of graphic photos of actual torture committed by Israeli defense forces and secret police, but I chose not to publish them there. I do think that such images should be published, but the reader should be warned first and given the option not to view them.

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Sister Ortiz Speaks Out: Fighting to End Torture

Sr. Dianna Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), an organization of torture survivors. An Ursuline missionary, Sister Ortiz survived the torture in Guatemala in 1989. She testified June 25, 2009 before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill.

Sr. Dianna Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), an organization of torture survivors. An Ursuline missionary, Sister Ortiz survived the torture in Guatemala in 1989. She testified June 25, 2009 before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill.

BY HEATHER K. STRACK
MEREDITH M. WILSON
Published in Issue 6.14 of the Dartmouth Free Press

Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, is executive director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C. She was tortured in Guatemala in 1989 after spending two years there as a Catholic missionary teaching Mayan children. She is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.

Sister Dianna Ortiz came to speak at Dartmouth on Thursday, April 6, about her experiences as a victim of torture in Guatemala in’89. She was there as a missionary with the Ursuline order of nuns, teaching in an indigenous-populated village. After being abducted and interrogated, Sister Ortiz was burned with cigarettes, repeatedly raped, and endured many other horrors, including being forced to aid in the torturing of another prisoner. Although she suffered amnesia and still grapples with the painful memories she has regained, Sister Ortiz has chosen to speak out. The organization she founded, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, provides survivors themselves with a voice in the fight to end torture. Just before her speech at Dartmouth, she spoke with the Free Press about her beliefs and work.

DFP: Could you tell us about what was happening in Guatemala—what you were doing there, and what were the political circumstances that led to your torture?

Sister Dianna Ortiz: I went to Guatemala in’87. At that time, a civilian president had been elected, so I think there was this belief that the civil war in Guatemala had tapered off, and that the human rights violations were no longer as extensive as they had been in the past. And when I went, I think that I had that image in my mind as well. But when I arrived in Guatemala, it was evident there was a great deal of political violence––and a lot of silence, and I couldn’t understand why people were silent and not out there denouncing the atrocities being committed by their government, but now I understand. I [was in] San Miguel, a small town with an indigenous community, a very poor area [and] a lot of violence had occurred in that section of the country.

DFP: What were they trying to accomplish by torturing you, a nun?

SDO: That has been a question that I have asked for years… The people began to talk about some of the injustices that they were facing, and I remember from time to time the military would come to the village and then just pull young kids, young boys, off the streets, then take them to do forced military service. And the parents, the families would come to us and ask for assistance. We [the nuns] were familiar with some of the constitution of Guatemala, and that was a violation in terms of their rights, and so that could be one of the reasons. I was basically teaching children, and teaching them that they had basic rights, and when the children were adults, to recognize that they had basic rights and have the courage to speak out against the injustices. Maybe that’s one of the reasons, I don’t know.

DFP: Anti-torture activists often make the case that torture does not extract accurate and useful information, because victims will usually say anything to make the torture stop. So instead of getting actionable intelligence, the torturers get false confessions, incriminations of innocent people, and fabricated tactical information. Obviously, as a survivor of torture, you have a uniquely informed perspective on this. Does torture produce useful information, or can governments ever gain anything by using torture?

SDO: I don’t believe so. No. Torture doesn’t work… Under torture, a person will admit to anything, disclose anything, even if it’s false. Any information obtained under torture is not reliable.

DFP: Why do you feel there has been a lack of public knowledge about this practice?

SDO: I would not say it’s a lack of knowledge; I would say it’s denial, indifference, fear. Since 9/11, people around the country want to do whatever is necessary to protect our borders, and I’m not saying that we should not defend ourselves—it’s important to protect ourselves—but violence only begets violence, and torture is not the solution to this so-called War on Terror.

DFP: Do you think that the War on Terror can be successfully accomplished without torture?

SDO: I do. I believe in dialogue.

DFP: What is your response to those who argue that the destruction of one life is worth discovering information that will save thousands from a terrorist attack?

SDO: Torture can never be justified. Who is to say this person has a right to live, and this person doesn’t? It’s zero tolerance for torture, under any circumstance.

DFP: What is your position on the interrogations at Guantánamo Bay? In your view, do any of the questioning tactics used there constitute torture?

SDO: It is torture. Period. People may not often see interrogation as a form of torture, but it is a form of torture. I don’t want to go back to my experience, but I think about when I was detained, and my torture began with the interrogation. And the good cop/bad cop image. The use of instruments in my situation — cigarettes were used as part of the interrogation — so when I hear the word interrogation, I immediately identify it with torture. I would say a majority of survivors also identify interrogation with the beginning of their torture.

DFP: Do you feel that it is just as wrong as torture as it is employed elsewhere? Or is it different, lesser, or somehow justifiable?

SDO: It’s similar. For instance, this concept of refining torture—saying that torture really isn’t torture. For instance, right now they talk about waterboarding, shackling, [IRFing], and they say it’s not torture.

DFP: Do you think the U.S. needs to reassess its definition of torture?

SDO: I don’t believe so. There already is a definition. It’s almost like opening a Pandora’s Box—we could say we’d need to redefine every law that exists.

DFP: You’re the director of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), an anti-torture group “founded by and for torture survivors.” Could you tell us about your organization, its mission, and successes?

SDO: Our organization is comprised of torture survivors from around the world. Our main objective is to work towards the abolition of torture. We believe the voices of survivors are [some of the most] important voices in the campaign to end torture. I’m not sure I would call this a success, [but] when TASSC first started, we were a pocket of six people, and [soon] were over 200, and that doesn’t include family members. I say that I question that that really is a success, because I think it really reveals the severity of the problem of torture in today’s world.

DFP: What obstacles does TASSC encounter when working to achieve its goals?

SDO: Well, first of all, I think that sometimes people look at torture survivors as fragile, unstable; and I would not say that we’re not fragile. We are, but there’s also resilience. We are committed to working towards the abolition of torture, not for any political reason. We believe that no one should be subjected to torture. In my dealings with our numbers, I have never heard survivors wish torture on their torturers.

Another obstacle is people often say to us that we’re not being realistic, that it’s impossible to abolish torture. We are of the belief that it is possible. We may not see the abolition of torture in our lifetime, but maybe the next generation. I often think of a friend of mine who was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and he often says to me: when he was a child, and he saw his parents working to bring about change during the Civil Rights movement, that he always questioned if it was going to make a difference. And today, when he looks back, he sees the accomplishments. It’s not perfect, but the idea is to plant a seed. The seed begins to germinate, and hopefully produces good fruit, in this case, the abolition of torture. Maybe it will be just one government to say they will not use torture, but this is a success.

DFP: Obviously your experience drove you to become an energetic anti-torture advocate. How else did it affect your life?

SDO: Torture has tainted every part of my life. Just earlier, the tape recorder [used by the DFP interviewers to record interviews] took me back to Guatemala. Even asking questions, that takes me back. I identify questions with interrogations, so I have to say to myself, Dianna, you’re not there, you’re here.

I’m not the same person I was. I was a teacher. I hope that someday…well, I feel that I am probably more aware of the injustices, the oppression that exists in the world, and I am sad to say that such an experience as torture opened my eyes to the reality. I have more compassion for people who suffer various types of trouble, never comparing pain, accepting people [as] they are.

DFP: How do most survivors of torture cope?

SDO: I don’t think there is a definite one answer for that. Each person deals with his or her torture the best way that he or she can. I think that we share a common language… we sometimes refer to our survival skills as “transitional survival skills,” for instance, to leave the light on at night, drinking coffee, staying away from people and sites where perhaps cigarettes are being used. Some people get involved in human rights. I think that has been the case with a number of our members. Some go out and speak. It takes an emotional toll for folks. There are some survivors who don’t even want to deal with it, and try to live as normal a life as possible. Then there are those who do take their lives.

DFP: How can we better empower other torture survivors to speak out?

SDO: Providing forums, I think, is one way. We do believe that the voices of survivors are vital in this campaign to abolish torture. Empowering survivors means also treating them like they’re human, and not feeling sorry for them. Sometimes there’s a tendency for that. We always say we don’t want sympathy—we want people to wake up. See the world through our eyes, even though I don’t believe that is possible. To see that torture is the plague of the 21st century.

DFP: Why do you speak out?

SDO: I believe that it is my moral obligation to speak about the issue of torture, about what I witnessed and experienced, but I also made a promise to those who were with me in the torture chamber that if I survived I would speak, and tell the world exactly what I had witnessed in the clandestine prison. So I am committed to that promise, every day I renew that commitment. Sometimes I feel like I’m not sure I can do it today.

DFP: Thank you very much, Sister.

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Growing up in Guantanamo – Mohammed Jawad is Released

Guantanamo prison must be closed

Guantanamo prison must be closed

Mohammed Jawad was just released from the United States’ Guantanamo prison and sent home to his native Afghanistan. How old is this fearsome terrorist, who has been imprisoned for seven years without charges or trial? Nineteen years old.

That’s right. I’m sure you can do the math. Mohammed Jawad has been illegally imprisoned at Guantanamo since he was twelve years old.

It’s hard to know what to say about this. This is the nation that claims to be a leader of the free world, and whose constitution guarantees a fair and speedy trial to its citizens? Are non-citizens subhuman, then?

Shouldn’t all human beings be accorded certain fundamantal rights, regardless of nationality or religion? Shouldn’t the right against arbitrary imprisonment be one of them? And shouldn’t children be treated with extra care and protected from harm? Aren’t these fundamental principles of human decency?

Mohammed was accused of injuring two US soldiers and their interpreter by throwing a grenade at their vehicle. However, much of the case against him had been ruled inadmissible by a US military judge in 2008.

Mr Jawad’s release was ordered last month by US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle, who described the US government’s case against him as “an outrage” that was “riddled with holes”.

What Future Awaits Mohammed?

During a time when he should have been in school studying reading and writing, mathematics and science; or playing football, or learning to play an instrument, or learning a trade and helping to support his family; he has instead been imprisoned under cruel and inhumane conditions, held in a cell 22 hours a day, and barred access to his family. Not only has his childhood been stolen, it has been replaced with a nightmare.

Now he has been returned to a nation that is unsafe and politically unstable. What future awaits him? What help will he get for the psychological trauma he has experienced? How will he make up for the time he has lost? Has he been given any compensation? (No). Will he receive any assistance, any professional guidance, or even a simple apology? (No).

Guantanamo prisoners blindfolded, bound and forced to kneel

Guantanamo prisoners blindfolded, bound and forced to kneel

Harsh Conditions and Torture at Guantanamo

And the outrage continues. 254 prisoners, almost all Muslim, continue to be held at Guantanamo prison in cruel and inhumane conditions. In addition to the harsh everyday conditions of their confinement (small cells with no natural light, no educational opportunities, no family contact), many prisoners have been systematically tortured.

An FBI report released in 2007 as part of a lawsuit involving the ACLU revealed that captives at Guantánamo Bay were chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor for 18 hours or more, urinating and defecating on themselves.

Besides being shackled to the floor, detainees were subjected to extremes of temperature. One witness said he saw a barefoot detainee shaking with cold because the air conditioning had bought the temperature close to freezing.

On another occasion, the air conditioning was off in an unventilated room, making the temperature over 38C (100F) and a detainee lay almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been pulling out his hair throughout the night.

On another occasion, an agent was asked by a “civilian contractor” to come and see something.

“There was an unknown bearded longhaired d (detainee) gagged w/duct tape that had covered much of his head,” the FBI document said.

When the FBI officer asked if the detainee had spit at interrogators, the “contractor laughingly replied that d had been chanting the Qur’an non-stop. No answer how they planned to remove the duct tape,” the report said.

Omar Khadr, a youth detained at Guantanamo prison
Omar Khadr, a youth detained at Guantanamo prison

Three British Muslim prisoners, known in the media as the “Tipton Three”, who were released in 2004 without charge, alleged ongoing torture, sexual degradation, forced drugging and religious persecution.

Omar Deghayes alleges he was blinded by pepper spray during his detention. Juma Al Dossary claims he was interrogated hundreds of times, beaten, tortured with broken glass, barbed wire, burning cigarettes, and sexual assaults.

There is much more. Defacement and abuse of the Quran has been a frequent tactic. As a result of all this, there have been four suicides and hundreds of suicide attempts by prisoners. Many are reported to be suffering from severe psychological stress to the point of losing their sanity.

In 2008 a video was released of an interrogation between Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer and Omar Khadr, in which Khadr repeatedly cries, saying what sounds to be either “help me”, “kill me” or calling for his mother, in Arabic.

Khadr is another youth held in Guantanamo, a Canadian citizen and formerly an alleged child soldier who at the time of his capture in Afghanistan was blinded in one eye by shrapnel, then shot in the back twice by American soldiers as he kneeled. Charges against him have been dropped three times, and the Canadian government has failed to request his extradition in spite of a ruling by the Federal Court of Canada that the government must do so.

President Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo prison by 2010. We’ll see. So far it does not look promising. Human rights organizations have demanded its closure for years with no result. However, positive changes in the treatment of prisoners have been made in response to media attention and the demands of human rights organizations. Please add your voice to the weight of pressure demanding better treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.

Please take action on this matter:

Click here to demand that Admiral David M. Thomas improve conditions at Guantanamo.

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Cairo Declaration on Human Rights

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) is a declaration of the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which provides an overview on the Islamic perspective on human rights, and affirms Islamic Shari’ah as its sole source.

The CDHRI declares its purpose to be “general guidance for Member States in the Field of human rights”. This declaration is usually seen as an Islamic counterpart of and a response to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The CDHRI has never been fully implemented by any Muslim nation, and has been criticized by non-Muslim nations and human rights organizations on several bases.

I’m interested in coming up with a progressive statement of human rights from an Islamic perspective. The Muslim world is groaning under the crushing weight of dictatorship and oppression. I don’t imagine that my puny little human rights statement will make any difference. But I want to at least point the way to a concept of freedom, human rights and equality under the law in a way that can be accepted by religious and secular Muslims alike. The Islamic Shariah is a flexible body of law intended to assure a dignified and free life for people of all times and places. We need to apply it in a way that will open a path to freedom, equality and dignity in the Muslim world.

First of all, here is the full text of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights. In coming weeks I’ll look at it piece by piece, consider the criticism against it, and ask how it might be improved. From there I’ll work on modifying it.

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Abolish Torture Without Exceptions

Imam Dawud Walid

Imam Dawud Walid

The following statement was recently issued jointly by the Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs, Imam Dawud Walid and Rabbi Robert Dobrusin. It was published in the Detroit News.

The Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, Imam Dawud Walid is executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Michigan and Robert Dobrusin is an Ann Arbor rabbi.

Abolish Torture Without Exceptions

The recently released White House legal torture memos call us as religious leaders to speak out against torture.

The memos authorize slamming detainees into walls, placing them in “cramped confinement” in coffin-like boxes and placing insects in the confinement box. The memos say “the use of waterboarding (a form of simulated drowning) constitutes a threat of imminent death.” Nevertheless, they authorize its use.

These practices violate core teachings of our different traditions, as well as the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

As religious leaders, our primary concerns are moral and spiritual, but we are also concerned about the practical issues of torture.
Some people support torture, believing that it will make them safe. Torture will not keep us safe. It puts us more at risk.

Torture does not provide sound intelligence, and there are more reliable ways to get information. Brad Garrett, the former FBI special agent who repeatedly obtained uncoerced confessions from terrorist suspects, explains “If we want the intel, there are approaches that will render the information without torture.”

What’s worse, torture puts U.S. citizens and Americans abroad at greater risk. As 38 retired military leaders, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explain, “If degradation, humiliation, physical and mental brutalization of prisoners is decriminalized or considered permissible … we will forfeit all credible objections should such barbaric practices be inflicted upon American prisoners.”

We need to face the truth about U.S.-sponsored torture. That is why we call for an impartial, nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry to study to what extent our interrogation practices have constituted torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Likewise, the United States must hold itself to the same standards that we expect of other countries. It is shameful that the torture memos authorize practices that the memos themselves admit the State Department condemns in other countries.

In the face of this double standard, we support “Golden Rule” to prohibit any treatment of detainees that we would not accept for U.S. detainees. This simple teaching we instill in our children is also a sound basis for our government.

There are often divisions between religious groups and conflict between religious and secular groups. Opposition to torture is an issue that unites. More than 25,000 people of all faiths have signed the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s “Statement of Conscience” calling for America to “abolish torture now — without exceptions.” They stand with secular groups such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Torture does not make our country or the world safer. It puts us at greater danger. Moreover, torture is wrong. Now is the time to investigate and to legislate. Now is the time to end torture forever.

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