In the light and airy surroundings of the Secretary General’s Copenhagen home, the faces of those gathered to learn about the IRCT’s work were captivated by one Syrian woman’s story of darkness and suffocation.
“When they took me to prison it was not for torture but to let me see how they torture people. Now, every time I think of Syria, I see that picture, the picture they forced me to see,” said Lilas Hatahet, a Syrian journalist imprisoned in Damascus for her critical reports on the Assad regime’s crackdown on peaceful protests.
Lilas Hatahet, a Syrian journalist imprisoned in Damascus, addressing the IRCT 26 June event.
“This is what Danish people and other nationalities struggle to understand when they ask Syrian or Iraqi or Iranian refugees why they don’t want to go home. It’s because for us, that home and those happy memories there are gone. It’s not the same country. For me, Syria is now that picture of torture. The Danes love to put their flag on birthday cakes. I was so surprised when I first saw that. We Syrians would never do that. For refugees, our relationship with our country is completely different.”
Resident in Denmark since the end of 2014 having fled Damascus and then been forced to leave Cairo after her Syrian passport expired, Hatahet was one of five speakers at an IRCT event in Copenhagen yesterday to mark the upcoming 26 June UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
A bubbly, energetic personality, Hatahet said her initial treatment at Oasis, an IRCT member centre in Copenhagen, had felt too slow for her restless outlook. “’Can you hear the voice of the water, how relaxing it is?” she recalls her therapist asking her. “I said, ‘I’ve just got a bill which I can’t pay, I’m a single mother of two boys, I can’t do this anymore.’”
But with help from the rehabilitation team at Oasis, one of them Tanja Weiss - another of the event’s speakers - Hatahet was eventually able to, as she put it, “relax and understand things.” Today, she helps train other journalists around the world in her role as a media advisor for Denmark’s International Media Support (IMS), and remains a passionate advocate for justice for those who torture, and rehabilitation for survivors.
“And that’s why we’re here today, in one of the best cities in the world, in the happiest nation on earth, because we know that for most people, most of the time, life isn’t like this, and for torture survivors, at least to start with, life is hardly life at all,” said Lisa Henry, IRCT’s Secretary General. “It’s eight centuries this very week since an English King signed the Magna Carta, the law that said individuals must be free of arbitrary arrest and torture; it’s 75 years since the end of a world war that saw leaders pledge never again and states accept a universal prohibition on torture always and everywhere; and yet in 2021 IRCT rehabilitation centres around the world, 160 of them in 76 countries, are still treating over 50,000 survivors of torture, thousands of them every day.”
Attendees included ambassadors from the Swiss and Norwegian embassies, the Danish Foreign Ministry, members of the Rotary Club in Denmark, the Center for Danish Islamic Counselling (CDIR) and the Center for Muslims’ Rights in Denmark (CEDA), current and former officials from Oxfam IBIS and the WHO, lawyers from DLA Piper, one of the world’s largest law firms which recently agreed to take on pro-bono work for the IRCT, and students from the law and economics departments at Copenhagen University.
“Despite significant policy changes in recent years, hearing about the work of the IRCT gives us hope,” said Muhammad, Chairperson of (CEDA) after attending the event. “Because it reaffirms that there are still strong organisations fighting to make a difference for torture survivors who have fled horror and destruction.”
“We all want a world free of torture. But we still think as tribes, it’s part of human nature,” said speaker Dr Mikkel Auning-Hansen, a clinical psychologist at the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (RCT), an IRCT member centre based in Jutland. “In prison that tribalism becomes dehumanising. So our job is rebuilding that human identity in survivors. It doesn’t take long to destroy a person. It takes a whole lot longer to build them back up again, and it needs everyone to help.”
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Established at the behest of Denmark as an annual event to speak out against torture and support survivors throughout the world, 26 June marks the moment in 1987 when the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) came into effect. Today, the Convention has been ratified by 165 states.