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Torture and the Pain of Others

Every year, June 26 marks the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, first proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1997.

For those who are lucky enough to have never been tortured, that designation may be meaningless. For those who have been tortured, a UN-designated day of “support” may bring back horrifying memories. And for those of us who work on the issue of torture, the challenge is to understand—and force courts to confront—the pain of others.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, remembering his own experience of being severely tortured in Argentina in the 1970s, reminds us that it is only when we actually try to feel the pain of the survivor that we bridge the chasm between those who have experienced this horror and those who have not. Only through a profound and difficult act of empathy can we understand and be moved to action.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has worked for more than a decade to help victims of torture and NGOs in Central Asia to bring their cases to domestic courts and the United Nations. Torture is widespread in Central Asia: in Kyrgyzstan alone, during the last seven years, two of our partner organizations—Golos Svobody and Kylym Shamy—filed at least 105 complaints with local authorities on behalf of torture victims.

We are saddened by the countless stories of shattered lives. But we are also honored to work with so many individuals who have the courage to speak up against their abusers and pursue accountability, despite the long odds and constant threat that by fighting against torture, they expose themselves to more of it. Having experienced the pain of torture, these brave individuals are determined that others should not go through the same thing.

One of the survivors the Justice Initiative has worked with, Alexander Gerasimov, a construction worker from Kazakhstan, was tortured by the police in 2007. The police beat him and threatened him with sexual violence. They forced him face down to the floor and put a plastic bag over his head. Four policemen stood on him as the fifth pulled his head back with the plastic bag, causing immense pain and suffocating him.

To this day, he has health problems related to his torture. After seven years of writing complaints to the local authorities, challenging in local courts their refusals to investigate his case, and withstanding their intimidation, he finally won compensation. In March 2014, an appeals court in Kazakhstan, acting on a decision by the UN Committee against Torture, ruled in his favor.

As Gerasimov explains, his father was moved to act by witnessing Gerasimov’s pain:

For sure, I was happy that the court adopted this decision. But when the judge was announcing her decision, I suddenly remembered my father, who told me not to quit. When [after being tortured] I was in the hospital, my father entered the room and saw me in that state. He said nothing and left the room. And he immediately filed a complaint with the police. When I was discharged from the hospital, he told me not to quit [the case]. And I am happy that I managed to do as my father said.

Mr. Gerasimov’s father passed away before seeing his son’s day in court.

H.R., a businessman in the Andijan region of Uzbekistan, was tortured several times by the police and security forces in a bid to force him to falsely incriminate others. In May 2004 he was so severely beaten by police that he fell into a coma that lasted for four days, and spent 23 days in the hospital. H.R. fled to Kyrgyzstan and later was resettled in the Netherlands.

In 2014, the Justice Initiative and an activist from Uzbekistan, Mutabar Tadjibayeva—herself a torture survivor—submitted a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee on his behalf. H.R. went through the excruciating process of remembering every detail of his torture, despite understanding that even a positive ruling from the committee would probably not be implemented by Uzbekistan’s government.

As he explained, “I am filing a complaint with the United Nations not just for myself, but for the people in Uzbekistan who continue to go through the same suffering that I have gone through. I am slowly recovering from the abuses committed against me, but I cannot forget those who stay inside the country, who are in prisons now.”

The voices of survivors are an important contribution to the anti-torture movement. And they are a reason for us all to continue this work.

On June 17, the American University Washington College of Law Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law’s Anti-Torture Initiative launched a new website and social media campaign on the theme of “Working Together for a #TortureFreeWorld.” The website and campaign will be a platform for survivors of torture, anti-torture advocates, and human rights experts and practitioners from around the world to share stories, videos, and work together towards a #TortureFreeWorld.

Check it out and share your stories. Because while understanding the pain of others is nearly impossible, acting to prevent torture is not.

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