Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Torture victims need more help

By Stefanos Evripidou
Copyright © Cyprus Mail 2008

DESPITE 60 years of illegality, torture is still a common practice in the world, noted the UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon yesterday, in his speech marking the international day in support of victims of torture.

“Torture is a profound abuse of human rights and a horrific aberration of the human conscience,” he said.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights strictly prohibits torture under any and all circumstances.

“And yet, 60 years since the adoption of the Declaration, torture persists, devastating millions of victims and their families,” he added.

The UN chief said the UN Day Against Torture was an occasion to remember those who have suffered torture and even died.

“It is also a call to speak out and take action on their behalf and against all those who commit torture and all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” he said.

The day was also marked by the Unit for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture (URVT), which opened in Nicosia two years ago. The unit’s director, Dr Isabelle Ioannidou, said URVT was the only organisation in Cyprus supporting the rehabilitation of victims of torture and their families over the long term.

The unit provides multidisciplinary treatment and rehabilitation services mainly for refugees and asylum seekers that have suffered torture in their own countries. A four-member team trained in Greece provides medical services, legal aid, psychological counselling and social rehabilitation to those suffering the effects of torture, and their families.

According to Ioannidou, asylum seekers are sent to the unit by the Asylum Service for examination if they have claimed to be victims of torture.

“First, we need to establish what the problem is, then to what extent they’ve been tortured, then we look at rehabilitation,” she said.

If the team confirms signs of psychological or physical torture, then the unit issues a certificate which is used in the person’s asylum application. However, even when torture has been established, the applicant may still wait three years until a verdict is given on their application.

“This is a problem. The asylum service doesn’t have the mechanism to fast track those who are tortured. I feel their cases should be processed much quicker,” said Ioannidou.

Examples of torture include physical torture but also psychological, like the constant fear of being jailed for your political beliefs, or the effects of living in a war zone.

“You have to be sensitive to each case. Sometimes psychological torture is worse than physical torture. Many cases involve police torture, or men raped by men, women being raped, and persecution for religious or political beliefs.

“The majority are Kurds from Turkey, but we also have people from Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Palestine, Iraq and Iran.”

Sometimes, those who come to the unit don’t want help. But others clearly do, like the man who suffered repeated rape in jail, or the Iranian cancer sufferer who was also repeatedly raped in jail. A single mother was thrown from the fifth floor of a building and broke almost every bone in her body.

“These people are definitely victims of torture and require long-term rehabilitation,” said Ioannidou.

“The biggest problem for them now is waiting for the government to decide whether they can stay or have to leave. They are in a state of limbo, which adds a lot of psychological pressure,” she added.

Despite its two years in operation, the unit has only issued nine certificates to victims of torture, due to the long period necessary for an application to get processed.

However, the unit cares for 42 regular clients, three of which are recognised refugees.

“Over the past two years, we can see that some of our clients have made substantial progress, in that they have moved from a situation of desperation (both emotional and psychological) to one where they feel comfortable (even integrated) in Cypriot society and have steady jobs. Their children have learned Greek and go to Greek speaking schools, and they are creating a life for themselves here and finding happiness,” concluded Ioannidou.

To contact the unit, call 22-873820

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