Torture's lasting effects

June 28, 2011
Now Lebanon - June 28, 2011

"Afraid? I’m not afraid. I’m emotionally drained, and I have nothing else to live for. So no, I’m not afraid to talk.”
Fatima, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, spoke, in tears, about the events that changed her life forever.
The 45-year-old mother of three said she was at work as a school teacher when a group of men from the Syrian army came in and dragged her away. She was blindfolded, her wrists were bound, and she was thrown in a car. She was taken to an unknown location where she was detained and repeatedly beaten and subjected to various forms of torture.

She was put into a tire and forced to sit there in the same position for several hours a day. She was beaten with a car antenna, her nail pulled off and her nose fractured. At times, she spent more than a week without food or water and went months without a shower. Over the five and a half months she was in custody, she was transferred to different locations across Lebanon and eventually ended up in a detention center in Syria. "It’s as if you stop existing,” she said.

This was in 1989. At the time, Fatima had no idea why she was detained, and only found out later that it was because she was working at a school run by an Islamic group that was "at odds” with the Syrian regime, Fatima said.

Fatima can now see only 20 percent out of her right eye and has had five operations on it, with more needed. She also takes six different medications and has lost more than 100 pounds as a result of the torture.

What happens in torture cells has left victims like Fatima both physically and emotionally scarred. Her husband, also a torture victim, physically abused Fatima and then divorced her. Her children live with him.

Even though the Lebanese civil war and the period of Syrian tutelage have ended, torture is still a real issue. Although Lebanon ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in October of 2000, few if any of its provisions are actually implemented. Despite being technically bound by Article 7 of the CAT, Lebanon has its own penal code, which does not criminalize torture. Instead, crimes are evaluated according to the consequences on the individual, and the penal code includes just about everything but the term "torture,” according to Human rights lawyer and President of the Lebanese Institution for Democracy and Human Rights Nabil Halabi.

Lebanese officials are convinced of the effectiveness of torture, which is still very much engrained in the system, he explained. "We know that torture is not proven to be effective. In most cases, the victim is telling you what you want to hear and not what they know.”
The other issue is cultural, because there is an acceptance of violence in general, Halabi added. Act for Human Rights (ALEF), which monitors human rights in Lebanon, is trying to change that through a campaign against torture called Azebak mesh raha (Is it really a pleasure to be tortured?), calling for elimination of torture in detention centers. The title of the campaign is a play on a common Lebanese expression, "Azebak raha,” which means "It is a pleasure to be tortured by you.”

ALEF has put up billboards across Lebanon and will launch a media campaign in an effort to raise awareness about detainees’ rights, according to Darine el Hage, executive director of ALEF. This comes on the heels of International Day In Support of Victims of Torture which took place this past Sunday June 26.

Torture is widespread throughout the region, something that has come to light with the wave of uprisings sweeping the Middle East. In the countries experiencing revolts, thousands of anti-regime protesters have been detained and often tortured. The most recent high-profile case was in Syria, where the gruesome torture and killing of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb sparked another wave of protests in the country. In Egypt, the brutal murder of Khaled Said by Egyptian police on June 6, 2010 was also a symbolic event for the Egyptian revolution.

For many victims, the idea of their stories being retold is painful. But Fatima has found peace thanks to the Nassim Center, a project of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) which offers rehabilitation to victims of torture. She said she wanted to tell her story so that she can inspire others to do the same. "Many victims think they are alone. They need to know that there are people who want to listen to their story. There are people who care.” "I long for the day where we can all live in harmony,” said Fatima. "There’s no reason we can’t communicate freely through words. Through words and understanding, everything is possible.”

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