Torture in 2014: Stories of modern horror

A Mexican woman is raped on a police bus, as officers cheer on; a Nigerian man still suffers from migraines four years after police repeatedly banged his head against a concrete wall; a woman from the Philippines still has flashbacks of the moment a soldier poured hot candle wax over her skin.

Torture is as alive as ever – with Amnesty International documenting the use of torture techniques such as electroshocks, waterboarding and rape in more than 141 countries over the past five years.

It is happening across the world, in dark prison cells, secret detention centres and in broad daylight. Most of those responsible never face justice, and in the context of the overwhelming impunity torturers enjoy, government are sending a signal that the practice is allowed.

In some cases, torture is so brutal that individuals die. In others, men and women manage to survive and go on to dedicate their lives to bringing those responsible to jail and puting an end to impunity.

Stop Torture, a new campaign by Amnesty International, is seeking to shine a light onto the lives of those surviving these brutal acts, and bring those responsible before the courts.

Italia Méndez: “It had never crossed my mind that I could be tortured”

When Mexican human rights activist Italia Méndez travelled to San Salvador Atenco, in the state of Mexico, on 3 May 2006, to document abuses by police against demonstrators involved in a protest, she never thought she would be arrested and tortured herself.

At 6am on 4 May, police brutally knocked down the door of the house she was in, pulled her by the hair, pushed her against a wall and beat her.

During the violent interrogation by the police about her doings in Atenco, Italia explained she was a human rights activist, and in response the officer in charge told the others: “she needs special treatment”.

“They struck my head with a piece of wood, covered my face with a jumper and took me inside a police bus. Once in there, I could smell blood and hear screams of pain. There were people piled all over the floor and the police made me walk on top of them. As I reached what felt like the end of the bus, they pushed me down and started beating me again, trying to suffocate me and then they raped me. I could not believe what was happening. As they were abusing me, they forced me to make sexual comments to them and said they were going to kill me,” Italia described in her account of that day.

“The beatings got so bad that at one point I felt a hand lifting beneath me and heard someone saying ‘please stop beating her’.”

The journey lasted several hours until they eventually arrived at the state prison.

Covered in bruises and cuts, Italia was taken to the prison’s dining room where 47 other women, who had been held in connection to the protests, were waiting to learn their fate.

Italia was desperate to speak to a doctor and a lawyer to show them her injuries and ensure they would be properly documented.

But when an official from the State Public Prosecutor’s Office arrived, he refused to register her complaint about the abuse. No proper medical examination was carried out.

“The doctor who examined me kept laughing during the check-up. He stitched up my head without any anaesthesia, it was very painful.”

Italia was released on bail 10 days later and charged with “attacks on public roads and means of transport”. These charges have now been dropped.

Since then, Italia and ten other women survivors of the police repression that 4 May have denounced the abuse they suffered while in custody to the authorities at the highest level. The eight year struggle for justice has seen two police officers facing charges for the sexual torture, but the many others involved, including senior officials, continue to evade justice. Their case is before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.

Recently, Italia and the other ten women have come together with other survivors of sexual torture committed by authorities in different cases across the country to demand justice and an end to such grave abuses in a nationwide campaign, “Breaking the silence”.

Italia says her ordeal illustrates the widespread use of torture and lack of justice in Mexico.

“Torture is out of control in Mexico and it doesn’t only affect the person suffering it, it hurts society as a whole. But I will always continue to fight,” she said.

Justine Ijeomah: “A police officer repeatedly banged my head against a concrete wall”

“Mr Human Rights” – that’s what the authorities in my home city, Port Harcourt, in Nigeria, call me, because of my work to defend death row prisoners and other detainees who face torture at the hands of the security forces.

Staff and volunteers at our organization, HURSDEF (Human Rights Social Development and Environmental Foundation), visit police stations and detention centres where people are at risk of serious human rights violations in custody. We have documented many cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and horrible stories of torture.

Many police stations have what they call torture chamber and “O/C Torture”, officer in charge of torture. They bring detainees – often the poor and street children – to the “Temple”, another name for the torture chamber.

They suspend people from the ceiling or handcuff and fold them over, and torture them for hours – they beat them with the flat edge of a machete blade, use pliers to pull their fingernails or use wire cutters on them, shoot the victims in their feet, blindfold them and carry out mock executions, pour tear-gas in their eyes, and beat them with the barrels and the butts of guns.

In one recent case, a young man fainted after hours of being beaten with a machete and a metal rod. The torture chamber floor pooled up with blood. When the officers revived him the following morning he was forced to eat his own blood caked in the sand on the floor.

Many torture victims are held for months without being charged with a crime, and it is routine for the police to use torture to extract confessions. People will admit to anything just to be relieved of the pain. These confessions extracted under torture then form the basis of a court trial against the torture victim. Sometimes convictions result in death sentences.

And we, as human rights activists,are not immune to attack ourselves. We receive death threats, are arrested often and I have also suffered torture. In May 2010 I was defending a child suspect when I was arrested by the police. I was taken from the cell and kept behind the counter where a police officer repeatedly banged my head against a concrete wall. I was hospitalized with serious head injuries and still suffer from migraines as a result.

We want to see torture criminalized in Nigeria. It is already unconstitutional, and we must work collectively to ensure it is no longer an intrinsic part of law enforcement in our country.

We remain hopeful. The authorities do pay attention when we speak out about individual cases – I’ve seen the impact of naming and shaming perpetrators during my weekly radio programme, “Know Your Rights”. Often we get a response or see action taken just hours later.

Torture is inhuman let’s collectively stop it!!”

Loretta Rosales: “My body was trembling uncontrollably”

When two Filipino plain clothes security officials came up to human rights activist Loretta Rosales, blindfolded her and put her into a car, she thought she would not live to tell the story. Defending human rights during Ferdinand Marcos’ brutal regime in the 1970s was an extremely risky business.

“I was very afraid. I knew that was it for me. The moment they brought me inside this building, I started hearing cries and screams. I knew I was in a torture chamber. One of the agents said: ‘Nobody knows you are here so we can do anything we want with you’”, Loretta told Amnesty International.

The torture began right away.  First, the men shouted questions at Loretta, then poured hot candle wax over her arms, tried to suffocate her with a belt and waterboarded her.

“I remember trying to stay awake, that was my way of fighting. And then, the electric shocks begun, that was the most painful. My body was trembling uncontrollably. I had no control of my body,” she explained.

Loretta’s family had connections with the military and she was released from detention a few days later. But she never gave up her human rights work and is now head of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, the national human rights institution in the country.

However, nearly 40 years on and despite some legislative progress in the Philippines — the country passed its Anti-Torture Act in 2009 – torture continues to be prevalent.

In January 2014 Loretta received a call reporting the discovery of a “torture wheel” in a police intelligence facility in the city of Biñan, south of Manila.

The officers would decide on which torture techniques to use on detainees by spinning a wheel.

A “30 second bat position” meant that the detainee would be hung upside down like a bat for 30 seconds. A “20 second Manny Pacquiao”, named after a famous Filipino boxer, meant that a detainee would be punched non-stop for twenty seconds.

“It was the first time I saw something like that. They usually torture someone to extract information but this was being done for entertainment. It was shocking,” said Loretta.

Several of the police officers have been charged following international outcry but justice for torture victims is extremely rare in the Philippines. And Loretta is only too aware of this. Nobody was ever brought to justice for the abuse she suffered as a young activist. One of the men who tortured her is now a member of congress.

“The lack of convictions on cases of torture in the Philippines is big problem. Some people are scared to report it and when there’s no justice, it sends a message that torture is actually allowed.”