"Torture remains unacceptable and unjustified at all times, including during states of emergency, political instability, or even in a war. On this day, let us also pay tribute to all those who stand in solidarity with victims and their families – and reaffirm our commitment to ending this abominable and useless practice." Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General
Torture violates the inherent dignity of the human being. Its use creates societies based on fear and throttles the transformative potential of civil society. Many Human Rights Defenders face the fear of torture on a daily basis. They are also the people on the front line of resisting it.
This June 26, to commemorate the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, PBI UK celebrates three inspiring human rights defenders who have fought back against the scourge of torture. Although their struggles are far from over, victories like theirs are vital steps in the battle to rid the world of this practice.
Valentina Rosendo Cantú, an indigenous Me’phaa woman from the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico, was victim of sexual torture by military members in 2002. Whilst washing clothes in her rural community, 17-year-old Valentina was assaulted by eight soldiers who interrogated her about the whereabouts of armed people in the area. When she did not respond, as she only spoke her indigenous language, she was tortured and raped by two of the soldiers whilst the other six watched.
Throughout her long legal battle for justice, Valentina suffered multiple discriminations for being a woman, indigenous, poor, under-age and because she spoke an indigenous language. She was socially stigmatised for being a rape victim.
In August 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled the Mexican State responsible for Valentina’s abuse. On 1 June 2018, 16 years after the event, the Guerrero District Court emitted an historic guilty verdict against military members Nemesio Sierra García and Armando Pérez Abarca for the crimes of rape and torture.
Valentina’s case is ground-breaking on a national and international level. It sets a precedent for the development of the terms “sexual torture” and “military institutional violence” and consolidates Valentina as a reference point in the defence of women’s rights and the fight against sexual torture and impunity.
Lawyer and human rights defender Mandira Sharma co-founded Advocacy Forum in 2001, Nepal’s trail blazing organisation of human rights lawyers. Nepal’s civil war, which stretched from 1996 to 2006, resulted in thousands of cases of torture, killings, forced disappearance, sexual violence and other abuses. Both sides stand accused of grave human rights violations, but not a single perpetrator has been held to account for their crimes. Many remain in high positions in the government and military.
Mandira and her colleagues represent victims and work to achieve justice by bringing their cases to courts in Nepal as well as harnessing media attention and international support to campaign for legal reforms. As a result, they have experienced direct and indirect threats, assaults, and defamation and incitements to violence in the media.
A key part of Advocacy Forum’s work is visiting detention centres to provide legal assistance to detainees, especially juveniles. During these visits they are also documenting cases of torture. In 2017, Advocacy Forum lawyers interviewed 250 juveniles, of whom around 20% complained of torture and ill treatment in police detention.
The legal pressure of networks such as Advocacy has been crucial in Nepal finally criminalising torture through reforms to its Criminal Code in 2017. However, a separate law to provide reparations to torture victims, as required by international standards, is still not in place. Furthermore, the Nepali police has been preventing lawyers from accessing detainees. Advocacy Forum continues to pressure the Nepali government to honour its international commitments and take clear steps to eradicate the practice of torture.
The case of the Molina Theissen family is paradigmatic in Guatemala’s struggle for justice for the crimes committed by State and military during the country’s 36-year civil war.
Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen was a young student activist, identified as a subversive by Guatemala’s repressive military regime. On 27 September 1981 she was arrested at a road block and taken to a military base. For the next nine days she was illegally detained, tortured and raped until she finally managed to escape.
The day after Emma’s escape, her 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio Molina Theissen was abducted at gunpoint. He was never seen again. The Molina Theissen family has long maintained that Marco Antonio’s disappearance was in retaliation for his sister’s escape. Emma Guadalupe fled to Mexico in 1982 and has been living in exile in Costa Rica since 1985.
On 23 May 2018, more than thirty years after Marco Antonio’s disappearance, four senior military officers were convicted of their crimes. These included two high-ranking officers previously thought to be untouchable: former Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García and former chief of military intelligence Manuel Callejas y Callejas. The four defendants were sentenced to between 33 and 58 years in prison for crimes against humanity regarding the detention and torture of Emma Guadalupe, forced disappearance and rape.
PBI volunteers were among the international observers throughout the tense hearings of the historic Molina Theissen trial.