Friday, December 16, 2005

Human Rights Defender: Dr. Susan Fayad

Continuing on the topic of torture, I want to take a moment to highlight the work done by just one Egypt human rights defender, Dr. Susan Fayad, who in turn works with many other HRDs in the field. Torture may be systematic in Egypt, but there is no lack of opposition to it within the country.

Dr. Susan Fayad, medical director of the El Nadim Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture in Egypt. Founded in 1993, the center has offered long-term treatment and psychological rehabilitation for the victims of violence. This includes victims of torture in Egypt, where torture is systematic, refugees from the violence in Sudan and domestic violence victims. The center’s work with refugees is particularly valuable at a time when Sudan struggles with a human rights crisis.

The importance of the work of Dr. Fayad and the El Nadim Center has long been recognized by Amnesty International, other human rights groups and NGOs within Egypt. For example, the center’s work was noted in Amnesty’s report “Egypt: Women Targeted by Association

To put the work in context, let me to discuss the prevalence of torture in Egypt. Information gathered by Amnesty International over the past two decades as well as by other Egyptian and international human rights organizations through interviews with victims and their relatives, medical examinations and judgments by Egypt's own criminal and civil courts constitutes an irrefutable body of evidence of the entrenched nature of the pattern of torture in Egypt. Political prisoners are subject to torture, but the practice extends to prisoners of all kinds and ages, from 14-year-old boys accused of stealing bicycles to young actresses in a dispute with a police officer. In May 1996 the Committee against Torture concluded that torture was systematically practiced in Egypt.

Impunity for the torturers is widespread. Despite hundreds if not thousands of allegations of torture, Egyptian officials have brought charges against only a handful of police and security officials, who if convicted are given minimal sentences that in some cases are never served. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no public investigation and no discussion of results. While Egyptian officials claim that torture is illegal in the country, State of Emergency legislation in effect since 1981 allow for long-term and incommunicado detention without charge or trial, practices that Amnesty believes enable and even encourage the use of torture. In a country where public discussion of torture is difficult, the center’s annual report giving details and names (with the victims’ permissions) is a critical and damning resource against those who would stop all debate.

In a statement given to Front Lines, a human rights defenders group, Dr. Fayad said she and others founded El Nadim to take effective action against torture. That meant working with doctors to train them in collecting information that would substantiate claims of torture and to help the patient. Rather than waiting at the center for patients and doctors to come to them, Fayad said the group makes an aggressive outreach effort.

“Very early in its history, El Nadim group has taken its decision to get out of closed clinics and into broader circles, as the victims of torture are spread along the map of police stations, and present in all quarters of Cairo and other governorates,” Fayad said. “We have tried all the time to widen the circle of intellectuals, media people, members of the people’s assembly and local leaderships in poorer neighborhoods about the issue. All over that time, our belief that we should go to victims of violence wherever they are as the method most effective to reach them and offer them the needed service was affirmed, because victims of torture most probably fall in the pit of isolation, physical and psychological pain and fear injected by the torturers – of what might happen – if he or she divulged the secret. That is why they need someone to look for them, reach them, assure, encourage and support them. It is also impossible to remove the humiliation of the victims and grant them their justified desire in punishing the torturers without giving them back their credit in front of the whole society. And if reaching out for them directly is a part of giving them back that credit, it is never complete without giving them the reports that prove torture to be submitted to jurisdiction and organizing campaigns for their aid, as we will clarify later.”

The center has also been an important resource for the protection and care of women who have been subject to domestic violence, including female genital mutilation. Again their active outreach programs into poor neighborhoods have been important in providing women help in an area where it is still difficult to have public discourse.

All of this has been done under the watchful eye of the Egyptian government. On July 11, 2004, a committee of inspection from the Ministry of Health visited the Nadim Center for the Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Amnesty International has received information that the three members of the committee acted in an “aggressive and abusive” manner and transgressed its legal duties.

On July 19, 2004, the center received a letter from the Ministry of Health accusing it of a number of breaches of a law governing NGOs and giving it a period of 30 days to correct them or be held accountable before the law. According to the law, the authorities can close down the center for as long as they continue to find “major breaches.”

The most serious accusation waged against the center relates to the center carrying out unauthorized activities as a medical establishment. The suspicion is that this allegation relates to their publication of information related to government-sponsored torture, but we can’t be clear on that because details were never given.

Since the visit of the government authorities, the center remains open. But the threat of government closure remains. The Egyptian government can use their authority over NGOs to restrict their work. But despite the threat, the center continues its work. In June 2005, the center published its annual report on torture and highlighted more than three dozen cases of torture, including several where the prisoner died in detention. The report also included information about torture of suspected Islamists rendered back to Egypt by third parties. This of course is an extremely important topic right now, and the work of NGOs within the countries of rendition is essential to the rest of the world knowing about these facts.

One last thing: It is more important now than ever to highlight the examples of the human rights defenders in the Middle East, particularly women. The debate over whether human rights is indigenous to the region and to the Islamic religion and needs to be exported is a potent one. Clearly, the work of Dr. Susan Fayad, as well as of many others, shows that the spirit of human rights is as strong in the region as anywhere. There has been promising progress in the past few years, including in Egypt. Too often, we are putting credit for those partial advances to the West, but in fact whatever success comes, it is primarily because of the work of the people on the ground in these countries. We must learn their names.

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