Give torture victims a break

By Simon Mulumbi

Everyone turns a blind eye to people put behind bars. After all, these are people found guilty of crimes against society for whom the public has very little or no sympathy at all. Why should one be concerned, anyway?

Many loathe the idea that we should be concerned about the welfare of such people who are kept away from the rest of society for committing crimes.

Yet, to the dismay of many, we forget that the people in detention, despite all the wrongs they may have done to society, suffer so much pain in one way or another that we have done nothing about.  As things are today, one must be of a mind of Christ to become conscious of this fact and to hold a different view about crime and punishment.

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has produced, from time to time, reports that say so much about the awful conditions in Zambian prisons and police cells. That alone makes one wonder if those behind bars would ever make a safe and successful return to the free world.

The truth is most of those in incarceration walk out of the gates one way or the other. But, few come out better than they entered. Many return from years of quarantine in overcrowded prisons or police cells, without control over themselves and exposed to inhuman treatment, including violence and abuse. Some leave unreformed while others develop strange characters that make them even more dangerous to society when they come out.

That is to say getting one locked up in our prisons or police cells does not necessarily make them a better person. This I found out last year in December, the first time I set my foot in a Zambian prison on a tour of duty with the Commission. I could not hold back my tears as I got soaked up in the hopelessness I found inside the prison walls.

It was particularly the poor conditions in which inmates were kept, the way they were starved or underfed, the dirty lavatories they used, the limited bed spaces where they slept and the people with whom they associated when serving their jail terms which broke my spirit.  There is some element of truth in the notion that prisons are a lot more like ‘graduate schools of crime’ than correctional facilities – the reason why they exist. Indeed, vegetables take on the flavour of the stew pot.

Let me turn away from the discussion of turning into law-abiding citizens the souls that have been effectively warehoused in places of detention dotted across the country. It is not the subject to which I want to dedicate this little space.

The failure to prepare inmates to be good neighbours when they get out is not the only concern about our prisons and other places of detention.

Many agree that prison warders, police and other law enforcement officials usually fail when it comes to respecting human rights. The majority of those who have passed through their hands are reported to have said they suffered ill-treatment at the behest of those who are tasked to protect them.

Nowadays when you open a newspaper or tune-in to a radio or TV station, it is not unusual to hear of someone somewhere in the country being ill-treated, battered, tortured or slain by an officer in uniform or some political cadre.

It is people deprived of liberty who are often the victims. Behind bars, they are stripped off all means by which to protect themselves. In those prison or police station walls, they are out of sight of the rest of society. They depend on the same people who are the perpetrators of torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.  For some, the gruesome spectacle of torture starts from the moment of their arrest. Just the handling of suspects tells a lot that our men and women in uniform do not have anything or want to have anything to do with respect for one’s right to be free from torture and other serious forms of inhuman and degrading treatment.

The other day I saw the anti-robbery squad, commonly known as ‘C5’, drive past me along Independence Avenue towards Woodlands Police Station, honking, brandishing AK 47 rifles and yelling at every motorist from the opposite direction. I feared for my life. One would think Damascus is here.  Fair enough, they may have a duty to ensure maximum security for some very dangerous criminals who must be caged. But, one wonders if that calls for this kind of excitement. If anything, it just traumatises both the suspects and members of the public, sometimes with long lasting psychological effects.

It is amazing to see such things happening in this day and age when the country has pledged itself to the international community to be a respecter of human rights. Perhaps it is because perpetrators know that no one bothers after the ‘bad eggs’ are cleared off our streets and those who become victims can hardly defend themselves, let alone stand up for their rights. In any case, very few of those who become victims even know that they have that right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan took a strong stand against torture that adds a lot of weight to its meaning.

“Torture” he said in 2001, “is an atrocious violation of human dignity. It dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrator. The pain and terror deliberately inflicted by one human being upon another leave permanent scars: spines twisted by beatings, skulls dented by rifle butts, recurring nightmares that keep the victims in constant fear. Freedom from torture is a fundamental human right that must be protected under all circumstances.”

It is important to note that the legal definition of torture, under international law, includes both psychological and physical aspects, even though it is not all-inclusive. The concept of torture is limited to acts by public officials or those acting in an official capacity to extract a confession from the victim.  This is not to say there are no other serious forms of ill-treatment outside the legal definition which amount to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. There are many and anyone can be a victim anywhere, anytime.

A lot of people outside prisons, police stations and other official places of detention have already been victims.  In our own homes, there are many untold stories of children who have been victims of torture and ill-treatment. They suffer infliction of pain by all manner of corporal punishment in the name of discipline. It is the most widespread form of ill-treatment children get subjected to in private homes and foster homes. This is also true about schools and orphanages.

Some elderly, mentally-ill and terminally–ill people placed in homes for the aged, mental hospitals and hospices also sometimes fall prey to torture-like and inhuman treatment by the very people that look after them. Little wonder why they are treated with contempt and even completely forgotten or left to suffer in dehumanising conditions.

Some very unlucky ones do not even end up at care homes, mental hospitals or hospices. I heard an old friend of mine I met in Solwezi last year in December saying he had witnessed ill-treatment of a man with mental illness by his own family in Zambia compound. His father chained him behind the house all day, come rain come sunshine, to hide the shame they felt about him. In his nakedness, the victim was disregarded and soiled himself, and picked crumbs of food thrown at him which he was eating. Even dogs at that home were better fed than him.

We cannot pretend that this kind of ill-treatment, which can only be described as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading, is a rare occurrence. Strangely, it appears to happen a lot more to the well-to-do than the poor who lack the means to assure a decent standard of living and medical care to those of their family members who are ageing, mentally or terminally-ill. Behind some of those lovely wall fences we marvel at, someone made in the image and likeness of God may be held captive and ill-treated in torture-like conditions, beyond which our eyes cannot see.

We must not forget that, as children of God and human beings, they are entitled to be treated like our dear ones with dignity and we should offer them a helping hand.

This year’s theme for commemoration of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which fell in June made a strong appeal that

victims of torture have a Right to Rehabilitation.

If we know, as the current Constitution of Zambia makes it clear, that no one should be subjected to torture or other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment, but see a lot of people being subjected to it in prisons, police stations, private homes, special hospitals and other institutions of care for children and the aged, then it is time to rethink how we treat and rehabilitate the victims. We cannot afford a business-as-usual approach to eradication of torture and rehabilitation of its victims.

Victims of torture or other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment around us are entitled to protection and need rehabilitation. They also need assistance to access medical care, counseling services, legal aid and compensation. The full rehabilitation of victims of torture needs the cooperation of all of us and the provision of essential requirements and skills to victims so that they are able to overcome the trauma they went through and go back to society.

Beyond ratification of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and others that prohibit torture, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Zambia should make torture a punishable offence under the law by enacting legislation in line with these international standards.  It is only then that it will be possible to bring perpetrators of torture to justice.

Merely prosecuting torturers is not enough to help the situation. The government should be compelled by law to provide assistance to those who become victims of torture, including their families, in as far as compensation and rehabilitation is concerned.

The author is Principal Information Officer at the Human Rights Commission.