NEWS

Torture, with a name and face

WASHINGTON – «I am here today to give torture a human face,» she declared with a tone of pride in her voice as she stood at the podium, only to burst into tears a few minutes later. Susan Pineda, a former student leader and staunch political and human rights activist in the Philippines, was abducted in 1992 when former President Cory Aquino was in power and taken to a safehouse where she was interrogated and tortured. She came here to let the world know what is happening in her country. Susan was one of some 50 torture survivors from over 40 countries who gathered in Washington DC on Tuesday for a two-day international conference titled «On the Question of Torture: An Exchange of Views.» The conference was organized by the US-based Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International, and brought together lawmakers, immigration officials and victims in an effort to examine torture in the post-September 11 environment. Susan was the first survivor to take the microphone. «They interrogated me around the clock. They tortured my body. They denied me sleep and sight. They made me hear gunshots and the screams of others. They made me take a bath while they watched me and then they sexually abused me,» she said while her tears were still wet on her face. After her release, Susan was forced to falsely confess that she was a surrendering rebel, but the nightmare didn’t end there. Agents continued to follow her for over three months, calling her at home and making threats on her life, in an effort to force her to withdraw the case she had filed at the Commission of Human Rights. Today she works as a paralegal and a counselor, while she has also served as an elected city councilor of Angeles City in Pampanga, the Philippines. She still hopes that one day she will see her torturers pay for their crimes and have closure. Then maybe the nightmares will stop. Stories of torture Patricio Rice was born in Ireland and soon after he joined the Divine Missionaries, he moved to Argentina. There he later joined the Little Brothers of the Gospel of Charles de Foucauld, and in 1975 he begun working in a shantytown in Buenos Aires. When the military seized power in the country the following year, he became active in denouncing the repression, particularly against church people. In 1976, he was picked up by soldiers, together with a young church worker, Fatima Cabrera. «They forced us inside a car and took us to a detention center at a ‘no-peasants land,’» he told a silent audience. «We were tortured to be destroyed.» United in their humiliation and hatred, they both had been blindfolded and kept in the dark while they were being tortured. «Torture has no limits to what they can do to you,» said Cabrera, who was seated next to Rice. «They applied electric shocks to the most sensitive parts of our bodies, including the eyes and the genitalia.» She declared that their interrogators «were only interested in extracting information from us; they were not paying any attention to our pleas.» They continued to torture them by placing them naked on the cement floor in uncomfortable positions, with hoods on their heads and leather straps securing their feet. «Every time they would pull us up we would start to suffocate,» she said. Rice was released a couple of months after the intervention of the Irish ambassador, who had been informed of his incarceration by eyewitnesses at the site where the soldiers picked them up. Cabrera, who was still in her teens when she was imprisoned by the military, remained in prison until 1979. In 1985 the two were reunited, and after a few months he resigned from the priesthood and they got married. The conference brought torture survivors from numerous regions, include southeastern Europe. One of them was Kemal Mehinovic, a bakery owner who was born in 1956 in Bosanski Samac in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On May 27, 1992, he was at home when Serb police and soldiers knocked on his door and arrested him without a warrant. «They arrested me and beat me in front of my wife and children,» he said. «I spent six months in police custody, with little food and medical care. I witnessed executions. I was beaten with metal pipes and wooden batons, with most blows directed to the most sensitive parts of my body.» He noted that even today he cannot hold a steady job, as he still suffers from severe headaches and pains in parts of his body. One of his torturers, though, was someone he knew even before the war. His name was Nikola Vuckovic, a name he would never forget. One day after Mehinovic came with his family to the United States as refugees in 1995, he learned that Vuckovic was also in the country, and he immediately initiated legal action against him. Vuckovic did not appear in court, and the judge ruled in favor of Mehinovic, awarding him a sum of money as compensation. Vuckovic, though, remains at large, and according to Mehinovic, has since returned to Bosnia. One of the issues that was raised yesterday (Wednesday) was the stance of the United States on human rights issues in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 last year. Concerns over the conduct of the Bush administration were voiced not only by survivors, but also by American lawmakers, such as Congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat from the state of Virginia. ‘A stained record’ Moran criticized the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw the country’s signature from the UN criminal court, saying that it was «wholly perverse. «It was very disappointing, as was the declared withdrawal. It is embarrassing.» The congressman said that the United States has a «very stained record when it comes to using the leverage that it has in order to promote and further human rights,» stressing that instead it spends billions of dollars on the military. «We now have more military capability than all the other countries combined,» he noted. Congressman Moran stressed that the time for talk has ended, and that action needs to be taken by lawmakers and the administration in a bipartisan way. He said that more money is needed to create rehabilitation centers for torture victims in the United States, a country that has over 500,000 torture survivors on its soil. «You have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, and so far all we have done is talk,» he said, stressing that if nothing is done «it will come back to haunt us.»