We Will Not Be Silent - TASSC's 19th Annual June Survivors Week

The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) held its largest June Survivors Week ever from June 22-June 26, with more than 140 torture survivors and TASSC supporters. Survivors came from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda, Balochistan (Pakistan), West Papua (Indonesia), Chile and other countries. June Survivors Week coincides with the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26, the day the UN Convention against Torture entered into force.

Conference Highlights: US Foreign Policy and the Asylum Backlog

TASSC Executive Director Gizachew Emiru welcomed everyone to the Conference, held at Catholic University, and introduced Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. Mendez, a survivor from Argentina, explained his role and the process involved in carrying out his mandate. Mendez noted that he must receive an official invitation by a country in order to investigate torture and the condition of its detention facilities. In 2016, he visited Brazil, Georgia, Ghana and Mauritania. He asked to visit Ethiopia, Cameroon and several other African countries, but they either rejected or ignored his request. He had also planned on visiting the Gambia. Right before his visit, however, the Gambian government prohibited him from visiting Mile 2 Prison, the most notorious of all its detention facilities. Mendez said he could not accept Gambia’s invitation under such restrictive conditions. 

The US Foreign Policy, Democracy and Human Rights Panel featured Nii Akuetteh from the African Immigrant Caucus, Ethiopian journalist Lily Mengesha, and Adlan Abdelaziz, a Sudanese survivor from Sudan Human Rights Network. Nii, a Ghanaian-born activist and analyst of African affairs who has testified in front of congressional committees, stated that: “When African activists like me discuss dictatorships, the word ‘dictatorship’ may seem like an abstract concept. But, being among the brave survivors I met [at the TASSC conference] made me realize there is nothing abstract about dictatorships. People are tortured, bodies are broken, spirits are broken, and people die.”

Lily Mengesha, a fellow at the National Endowment of Democracy, gave an outstanding presentation on Ethiopian political issues. She focused on the persecution of journalists under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and repressive legislation such as the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The ruling party uses this Proclamation to imprison and torture anyone who may criticize the government, similar to Egypt, Syria and other dictatorships all over the world.

Adlan Abdelaziz discussed the “dire human rights situation in Sudan and the need to protect civilians from their own government.” He called for a UN-recognized no-fly zone to prevent the Sudanese government from launching aerial attacks in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Southern Blue Nile regions.  He also said that the US should not lift sanctions imposed on Sudan until there is substantial improvement in its human rights record.

The Asylum Office and Immigration Court Backlog panel began with a presentation by Jennifer Quigley from Human Rights First. The focus of this panel was the two to three year wait survivors typically experience before being interviewed by a USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) asylum officer after applying for asylum. Jennifer discussed the two primary causes of the backlog: 1) Many asylum officers who would ordinarily conduct interviews with survivors are being utilized to interview the thousands of Central American migrants who have entered the US since 2013; and 2) Others are “loaned” to USCIS’s Refugee Corps to interview people primarily in the Middle East applying to become refugees.

TASSC Staff Attorney Josh Rigney, focused on the asylum backlog in the Washington DC metropolitan area. More than half of the 48 clients he represents at TASSC have waited over a year for their interview. “Our asylum system is so broken that some TASSC survivors have considered returning home—to the country that tortured them—because they could not bear being separated from their families any longer,” he said. “I’ve seen letters from survivors’ spouses asking whether the survivor has abandoned them, forgotten about their children or found new lives in America.”

USCIS has funded only 533 asylum officers; the panel recommends that this number be increased to 800 as quickly as possible. By reducing and eventually eliminating the backlog, the United States can restore the integrity of the asylum system and end the suffering of survivors and other asylum seekers.

Janel Martial Siewe Kwegue from Cameroon discussed the consequences of the asylum backlog from a survivor’s perspective. Janel Martial was kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by agents of Cameroon’s 34 year-old dictatorship because he “dared” to run for office as a representative of an opposition political party. He has waited 16 months for his asylum interview. “The long wait has had a terrible impact on my wife and two daughters,” he said. “They had to flee Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, to the north of Cameroon, where Boko Haram is active. My wife was frightened that government agents would come after her because of my political activities. They live in a rural area and sometimes weeks go by and I don't hear anything from them."

TASSC Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill

This year, TASSC survivors and supporters visited 41 congressional offices—compared to 24 offices in 2014, and 32 last year.  They focused on two issues – supporting Senate Resolution 432 on human rights and governance in Ethiopia and hiring more asylum officers to reduce the backlog. Resolution 432 was introduced by Maryland Senator Ben Cardin—a Democrat—and Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida. It has a total of 19 sponsors and has already passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. TASSC is working together with Amnesty International to get the Resolution through the full Senate. The Resolution is a model of how the US can begin to deal with human rights abuses in other countries that have tortured TASSC survivors. 

Senate Resolution 432 condemns: the excessive use of force by government security agents in the Oromia region and other areas of Ethiopia; the detention of journalists, activists, students and others exercising their right to free expression and peaceful protest; and the “abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms.” It calls for: a review of US security assistance to Ethiopia; USAID to develop a strategy leading to improved democracy and governance (the US provides $665 million to Ethiopia for development—less than one percent is used for democracy promotion); and for the State Department and USAID to “improve oversight and accountability” of US assistance to Ethiopia.  

TASSC advocates also discussed the asylum backlog with congressional aides, and the need for USCIS to employ 800 asylum officers to reduce and eventually eliminate the backlog that has had such a devastating effect on survivors. They also encouraged Members of Congress to communicate this message to USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez. There is no congressional appropriation for asylum officers—USCIS is in charge of its own staffing.

A highlight of Advocacy Day was the testimony of survivor Merga Gelgelo at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Merga and three other panelists were introduced by Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass), who chairs the Lantos Commission. Merga was a biomedical engineering student in Ethiopia from the Oromo ethnic group when he was detained and tortured by the Agazi, a Special Forces unit in the Ethiopian military. The regime used the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to detain Merga, accusing him of terrorist acts. Merga concluded his testimony with three recommendations: 1) The US ambassador to Ethiopia should discuss the Agazi torturers with Ethiopian military officials; 2) Ethiopia must stop using excessive force in Oromia and the rest of the country; and 3) the Senate should pass Resolution 432.

Community of Healing, Vigil and Celebration

June Survivors Week continued with a Community of Healing event, the Vigil opposite the White House, and a celebration at Busboys and Poets restaurant. At the Community of Healing, TASSC psychologist Sheetal Patel asked survivors to gather in a circle where they held hands and observed a moment of silence for all survivors, those present and absent. Survivors were able to artistically reflect on what this year’s theme -- We Will Not Be Silent -- meant for them. They used watercolor and markers to draw, paint and share their paintings with others. “Everyone could reflect as individuals but also in a way that engages with and includes the community,” Sheetal said. 

During Saturday’s Vigil, TASSC Board Member and survivor Tony Ibeaga, originally from Nigeria, did a tremendous job motivating and leading the event, which opened with a vocal performance by Sudanese survivor Amal ElNour. “Friends of TASSC” spoke about human rights issues and the fight against torture, including speakers from Witness Against Torture, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Dorothy Day Catholic Workers, Witness for Peace and Gabriela/DC. Throughout the vigil, survivors spoke from the stage about their personal experiences and conditions in their countries. The heart of the vigil was a procession with TASSC banners and drums around Lafayette Park, calling for justice and the abolition of torture worldwide.

June Survivors Week concluded with a celebration at Busboys and Poets with a delicious meal, wonderful conversation, music and dancing. 

Reflecting on the week’s events, TASSC Executive Director Gizachew Emiru was excited that June Survivors Week was so successful.   “The conference was very well organized, with a high degree of survivor participation. TASSC supporters and panelists were all engaged and active,” he said. “Our voice was heard on Capitol Hill, loud and clear, and at the vigil we brought our message all the way to the White House and the public. We have already started planning for next year-- the 20th anniversary of Survivors Week. We want Survivors Week 2017 to be even bigger, with an even greater impact!"