“Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence”: The West is Putting Pressure on Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia

February 21, 2012 (ayyaantuu.com) – A two days conference was held on February 15-16, 2012 at American University Washington College of Law (WCL). The conference was organized by the university, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims with support from the European Commission.

The main objective of the conference was, ” Stakeholders across the globe have participated in this conference to enhance the use of forensic evidence to expose torture. The conference concludes a three-year global project to strengthen the collaboration of practitioners in the use of medical expertise for strategic litigation cases and the fight against torture. Topics include survivors’ perspectives, national and international best practices, challenges, and emerging developments. American University WCL has developed numerous initiatives to help contribute to the realization of the objectives of the Convention against Torture (CAT) including conferences on the prevention of torture, reparation for torture victims, and strengthening visits to places of detention, as well as special programs on the study and research of the prevention of torture including the United Nations Committee against Torture Project.”

Panel 1 Wednesday, February 15, 2012.

Each day was divided into two, morning and afternoon sessions. The morning session of the first day started with opening remarks by Claudio Grossman, Dean and Professor of Law, American University WCL and Chairperson, UN Convention against Torture (UN-CAT), Brita Sydhoff, Secretary General, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT).

Session 1: Using Forensic Medical Evidence in Court

Session Chair: Duarte Nuno Vieria, National Institute of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Sciences, University of Coimbra, Portugal.

Presenters were, Claudio Grossman, Dean and Professor of Law, American University WCL and Chairperson, UN Convention against Torture (UN-CAT), Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and WCL Visiting Professor of Law, Hans-Peter Hougen, Department of Forensic Medicine, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, Phil Shiner, Public Interest Lawyers, UK, Mostafa Hussein, El Nadim Center for Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation of victims of Violence, Egypt.

The morning session focused on using forensic medical evidences to investigate torture and using them in court.  Torture often takes place in secrecy with methods designed to be as painful as possible without leaving physical marks.  Presenters have discussed how forensic examination reports and medical expertise can provide crucial evidences in court cases to help hold perpetrators accountable and provide reparations to the victims. Experts in the field have extensively explained that forensic science is an indispensible evidence to abolish torture. Therefore, using forensic science is an effective tool to ,Doctors other than those employed by the government have to participate in forensic science. Health professionals, lawyers and human rights advocates and the victims must work together to investigate this crime. Forensic science is becoming an indispensible evidence to influence public opinion, convince health professionals, lawyers, human rights advocates in the fight against this crime.

They also gave torture victims a hope because the center of their work is a torture victim and they are working to empower them. They also discussed the need for networking at local, regional ,and universal levels. That is why I have connected these experts to the report of the International Crisis Group by giving them a synopsis of this report to give them some idea about the Ethiopian crisis.

The afternoon session of the first panel was on good practice examples: global view on torture cases. In this panel discussion, we were told that direct support has been given to 30 torture cases worldwide through an established network of forensic experts.

This session was regrouped into six groups – group A to F. I was interested in Group A because it involves marginalized groups like the Oromo people. As an Oromo torture survivor, I had ample chance to tell my group how a small group called the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF), with the support of Western powers, has managed to dominate the majority of the Ethiopian people. You may read synopsis of a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) dated September 4, 2009 on www.ayyaantuu.com, Preventing Genocide in Ethiopia.  I told them I belong to the second largest ethnic group in Africa, the Oromo of the Horn of Africa, and some of you might not have even heard our existence due to the “Conspiracy of Silence”. Corporate media never tells this truth to the world. We use such forums and social media as an alternative to advocate for marginalized people like the Oromo people. Since the time allocated was not adequate, I have borrowed a wonderful phrase from Professor Mendez and said, “I am here to Break the Conspiracy of Silence and told them a brief history of the Oromo people.”

The second panel was on Thursday, February 16, 2012 and the morning session focused on voices of the survivors: involvement in legal trials. Survivors of torture may experience both healing and negative effects from involvement in the legal process. Torture survivors have shared their perceptions and caregivers have presented approaches to providing psychosocial support to survivors in legal proceedings.

I had the chance to participate in that discussion. I shared my own experiences as a survivor of torture. Instead of keeping the pain to ourselves, we started to talk to each other at the Community of Healing at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) – International. We gradually started talking to other people at high schools, colleges, and universities. This further led us to talk to the policy makers themselves. The American people gradually got involved and they have started questioning their own government. The case in point is last June 2011’s UN Torture Survivors week.

2011 Survivor Week a Huge Success!

Make no mistake.  Your help and support make a huge difference in the lives of torture survivors.  Thanks to your generosity, this year’s survivor week was a huge success. For pictures, visit www.tassc.org 2011 Survivor Week. 

 Fifty survivors completed the second annual Human Rights Training, offering testimony of their immigration, detention, asylum and family reunification experiences, and taking part in three workshops with policy organizations, service providers, and peace-building facilitators.

 Forty survivors joined forty student interns from The Washington Center to lobby 25 Congressional Offices and to ask the U.S. to end or condition its aid to countries that torture. Seven people, including five survivors from TASSC, offered testimony before a Congressional briefing with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. In addition, TASSC ended its week with a successful 12-hour vigil in front of the White House, commemorating the lives of those who did not survive torture, and re-committing ourselves to the on-going journey to end torture wherever it occurs, and to empower survivors wherever they live.

All of this thanks to your generosity! Now the real work begins, as we continue the work that TASSC has done, day in and day out, for the past 14 years.

          Source: TASSC – International website.

The panelists have also noted that too few countries have mechanisms in place that mandate the provision of prompt, effective, and independent forensic medical and psychological examinations to individuals with torture claims. Victor Madrigal was Session Chair and the following professionals have presented : Yadira Maria de la Cruz Nervaez Silva, PRIVA, Ecuador – about institutionalization process in country and university studies; Loreine Dela Cruz, Balay Centre, Philippines – about systems and legal reforms in Philippines; Sebuem Korur, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey – on institutionalization and large-scale training programs; Rusudan Berialshvili, State Medical University, Georgia – about Systems in Georgia before and after the Rose Revolution and the forensic institute; Suzanne Jabbour and Sana Hamzeh, RESTART, Lebanon – about System  in Lebanon and Advocacy.  All of them have examined how, through advocacy, training, and legal reform, medical documentation can be effectively included in investigation and court proceedings.

The presentation made by Rusudan Berialshvili has given us some hope because there was a drastic change in Georgia after the Rose Revolution. Post Sovietization, they moved from a very old and broken down office to a modern and new building in a professional office setting to perform their professional works on forensic medical and psychological examinations. She also explained Post Soviet transition in Georgia.

                                Expert Panel Discussion on Fighting Impunity


The last panel discussion was on fighting impunity and it was chaired by Jonathan Beynon, Medical Expert, ICRT. The discussions were presented by Suzanne Jabour, Vice-Chair, UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, Lebanon, Vivienne Nathanson, British Medical Associations, UK, Morris Tidball-Binz, Forensic coordinator, Assistance Division, ICRC, Argentina, Switzerland based on reflection on conference presentations, and shortfalls in fighting impunity for torture and looking ahead to where efforts can be directed to help achieve a world free from torture.

“Impunity is still one of the most serious impediments to the prevention of torture. Perpetrators are seldom brought to court and can continue their crimes without risking arrest, prosecution, or punishment. Torture survivors rarely receive any kind of redress. Besides adding to the suffering of the victims, such a situation leads to general lack of trust in justice and the rule of law. Consequently, few complaints are brought forward and few actual prosecutions are made.

Torture often takes place in secrecy, and many torture methods are designed to be as painful as possible without leaving physical marks. Documentation makes it difficult for perpetrators to deny their crimes and puts pressure on states to fulfill their obligations under international law to fully, promptly, impartially and thoroughly investigate allegations of torture and provide reparation to victims. For this purpose, medical documentation according to the Istanbul Protocol is a crucial tool. Nevertheless, few countries have mechanisms in place to provide alleged torture victims with prompt, effective, and independent forensic medical and physiological examinations as an obligatory part of the investigation.

Even where states fulfill their obligations regarding investigation and prosecution, there is often a lack of awareness of the impact the court procedure itself has on the well-being of the victims involved as claimants, witness, or civil party. Giving public testimony and receiving recognition from the authorities, and society, of the violation committed against them. Having their status recognized or seeing perpetrators held accountable can have a healing on the individual and on their families and communities. However, this can also be a negative, even re-traumatizing experience through the way investigations are conducted, lack of information, long time spans and not least threats and reprisals.

In April 2009, the IRCT, with funding from the European Commission, embarked upon a three-year project entitled “Use of forensic evidence in the fight against torture”. The project has been implemented in partnership with the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University Copenhagen, as well as IRCT member centers in Ecuador, Georgia, Lebanon, and the Philippines. The project focused on medical examinations and forensic evidence to be used in the prosecution of alleged torture cases in national and regional courts and at human rights institutions. To this end, a global network of international forensic experts was established to provide support to torture cases through examination of torture survivors and provision of medical reports, medical opinion on existing records and expert testimony on specific medical forensic questions in court. To date support has been given in more than 30 cases worldwide. Local anti-torture organizations and litigating organizations were also supported in their efforts to strengthen cases with medical evidence”.

This panel discussion highlighted how health professionals, lawyers, and human rights advocates receive and disseminate creatively both physical signs and forensic evidences of torture to expose systemic violations of human rights. They emphasized how constructing and preserving these evidences could be used for various purposes – to raise public awareness because the society has the right to know. They also discussed about deployment of technology and the need of involving educational institutions – colleges and universities, professionals –health professionals, lawyers, human rights advocates, associations of survivors of torture to fight against impunity.

Finally, Vivienne Nathanson said, “If you inject passion in what you do, with perseverance and persistence the crime of maintaining impunity will be abolished”.  The need for breaking down barriers and preventive mechanisms was also discussed.   

Closing remarks were made by Brita Sydoff, Professor Claudio Grossman and Professor Juan Mendez. Professor Mendez said, UN-CAT is the third leg of the UN. in addition, standing by the side of the victims is an enlightening experience. Forensic science is an indispensible evidence to abolish torture. It is indispensible to convince health professionals, lawyers, human rights advocates and to influence public opinions.” He also said, “Scientific vigor is needed to influence legal outcomes and he urged all to make the victims the center of this work. The objective is to empower them on local, regional, and universal level.”                                                      

A Brief Message for all Oromo Professionals and Human Rights Advocates

One of the five torture survivors that offered testimony before a U.S. Congressional briefing with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission was an Oromo, Hussein Ousman. We tirelessly worked for many years to reach at this level and it was a painful and daunting task. We had to relive torture; remembering what was happening to us and other survivors when we speak truth to people of power. We insisted, persisted, and told the truth. We did not care if we shivered; if our voices shake; if we became emotional; if we cried aloud. We kept on talking and gradually we are becoming a powerful force in exposing ignorance, human greed, tyranny, and racism. As usual, I have always supported my speech with facts and figures that I have obtained from TASSC – International , pictures and forensic evidences of my own torture case.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s number one contributor to the torture survivors’ community. Facts and figures speak for themselves and about 50% of torture survivors that are treated at TASSC – International are from Ethiopia (49% in 2008/9, 51% in 2009/10, and 48% in 2010/11). This was made possible by the sacrifices of many courageous torture survivors that have endured the pain and suffering of re-living torture to expose tyranny and crimes against humanity at an alarming scale. Therefore, all Oromo professionals- health professionals, lawyers and human rights advocates and politicians must join us to make Meles Zenawi and his collaborators accountable for their crimes.

The last two decades was known for the illicit tactic of criminalizing dissent .The Western world, I guess, is now realizing that it was an absolute failure at least in the Ethiopian context. They promised to criminalize torture and we need to capitalize and coordinate our efforts to make Meles Zenawi accountable for his crimes. The TPLF’s crimes against humanity are similar to the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia and we have networked with survivors of that brutal regime to share experiences on accountability. Oromo professionals have a moral and historical obligation to respond to the plight of our people in general and the Oromo youth in particular.

Kallacha W. Kune