Chris Mason illustration

UK ‘distorts’ torture evidence putting lives at risk

Farzad Haghshenas was in his shop selling sweets and cakes when the Iranian security service arrived.

It was around noon on the 18th May, 2011, and the four besuited men who entered his premises were carrying handguns. Without showing a search warrant, two of them began rummaging around the shop while the others stood guard outside. They searched Farzad’s office and confiscated cheque books before he was arrested and handcuffed.

“They took my keys and locked the shop,” Farzad says speaking in Farsi, his words translated into English by a fellow Iranian seated next to him. We are in an office overlooking the River Clyde in the south side of Glasgow.

Farzad – a Kurdish refugee from the city of Marivan, north-west Iran – takes a sip of water from a plastic cup and continues with his story. He remembers being marched out of the shop and put into an unmarked car before they drove off with him.

“I was sitting in the middle of them in the back of the car. After a few minutes they covered my face,” Farzad says.

He believes his captors were Etelaat, Iran’s feared internal security, resonating with Iranians as the KGB did for Soviets or the Stasi for East Germany.  He learned later that they drove him to a detention facility in Marivan about 20 minutes away from his shop where he was locked up in a basement cell alone, a filthy room crawling with insects and a single dim light.

Farzad was frightened. Sometimes he could hear screams. He also heard bullets being fired.

“Single shots,” he says.

For the first 10 days, he wasn’t harmed but then the violence started, brutal physical assaults that continued for four and a half months unabated. Two to three times a week – mostly at night – guards would come to Farzad’s cell. He’d be handcuffed, a hood put over his head and he’d be taken to another room for questioning.

This room was a torture chamber. A bed had chains attached to tie people down. A rope hung from the ceiling. Blood had stained the floor dark ruby and splattered up the walls in arcs. There was an instrument for pulling out fingernails.

“The room was slightly smaller than this but it had no windows,” Farzad says looking around the office that we’re in.

He was often kept hooded while tortured and always handcuffed. There were usually two men in that room. They would sit Farzad in a chair with his hands cuffed at the back and punch and kick him repeatedly. He was sometimes tied to that bed so they could beat the soles of his feet. On occasions he would be suspended from the ceiling and given electric shocks.

The guards also made him pray, forcing him to say he was a Muslim.

“I prayed because I knew what would happen if I refused,” Farzad says.

Music would be blasted loudly at him for hours, particularly tortuous because most of the time he was alone in silence. He was rarely allowed a decent sleep.

“I asked them – ‘What do you want from me? What do you want me to do?’ ” Farzad says.

His torturers accused him of spying for Britain and America. They said he’d helped a banned Kurdish rebel group called Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAC) and questioned his role as an environmentalist with an organisation called Sabzchia (Green Mountain Society). They also said he was linked to the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Kurds – there are around 8.2 million comprising about 10 per cent of Iran’s total population – suffer from systematic discrimination particularly in employment, housing and politics. An ethnic group in the region without their own state, they are also denied cultural rights. Those who dare dissent face arrest, imprisonment and often the death penalty.

Farzad’s activism with Sabzchia involved protecting rivers and wooded areas but the group also protested at attempts by the government to burn out PJAC camps hidden in the Qandil Mountains, a Kurdish rebel stronghold.

“At night, they would burn forests. We would put the fires out and clean up the place. It was a national treasure. We knew Iranian guards would try and burn out PJAC so we protested to the government,” he says.

Farzad insists he did nothing illegal. He believes that his arrest was primarily because he was Kurdish, a persecuted minority in Iran. Moreover, he says that his torture was futile because he had nothing to tell.

“They would kick me in the face with their boots if I didn’t answer a question. This is just part of what happened…I could write two books on it if I wanted to,” Farzad says, now visibly upset.

He stops speaking to compose himself but says he must continue because it’s important to tell the world about the barbarity of the Iranian regime.

Sitting across from Farzad, is Norma McKinnon. She’s been listening intently while Farzad tells his story, an account initially rejected by the UK Government. Over the past nine years, McKinnon has heard hundreds of similar stories and can claim to be an expert on torture.

In her role with a charity called Freedom From Torture (FfT) she manages Scotland’s only specialist centre that helps survivors to rebuild their lives.

Her clients are usually asylum seekers and refugees, people who arrived in Scotland in a state of crisis after being forced to escape their homelands in fear of their lives. They come from nations where gross human rights violations are commonplace including – among others – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Established in 1985 in England, FfT (formerly called the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture) has helped around 50,000 people from more than 100 nations. Its Scottish facility opened in Glasgow July 2004 and since joining the charity in 2007, McKinnon and eight colleagues have helped more than 1000 torture victims.

Savage beatings, whippings, burnings, cuttings and rape, are all common methods of torture used by oppressive regimes. Sensory and sleep deprivation are routine, McKinnon says, while psychological terror is widespread: detainees have been made to listen to someone else being tortured and/or they are made to watch people being tortured – including family.

Some clients suffered mock executions while others were offered unimaginable choices to end their pain including the betrayal of close friends and relatives.

Others were told they must choose their preferred method of torture.

“We also work with children who have directly experienced torture themselves, have witnessed torture, or have seen the impact of torture on their families,” McKinnon says.

Aside from counselling survivors, FFT plays a vital role in claims for political asylum by producing medico-legal reports (MLRs) which are used to support applications. These reports verify claims of torture and must adhere to the Istanbul Protocol which serves as an international guideline for the assessment of people who allege they were tortured. The protocol was drafted by more than 75 experts in law, health and human rights and became an official United Nations document in 1999.

Doctors producing MLRs have a legal duty to immigration courts so their reports must be accurate and unbiased. Experts in their field, they forensically examine and document injuries sustained under torture. If there are discrepancies with people’s stories then doctors may decline to issue a report backing an asylum claim.

Yet despite the charity’s credibility and breadth of experience stretching back more than 30 years, FFT says that UK officials without medical expertise are increasingly undermining reports when considering asylum applications.

This, the charity says, is indicative of a culture of disbelief prevailing within the UK Government, resulting in genuine asylum seekers facing the prospect of being returned to the states that tortured them – and a high risk of death.

Deportation back to Iran and execution was the scenario faced by Farzad after he arrived in Scotland in August 2012 and claimed political asylum. He’d told the UK Government about the torture he’d suffered but immigration officials did not believe him and he was detained in Dungavel Detention Centre, South Lanarkshire.

Facing imminent deportation, Farzad decided to commit suicide.

He’d been held for two months and was told by officials that he’d be deported. If that happened, he feared he’d face the gallows in Iran. He’d finally been released from detention there after paying bail of 520 million rials (£35,000) – after four and a half months of physical and mental abuse he was close to death.

“Physically and mentally they destroy you,” Farzad says. “I was so bad that they took me to an army hospital while I was still in detention. The doctor said I would die if I went back to prison. The mental torture was terrible.”

“They brought in my younger brother for four days and beat him up in front of me. They told me my mother had died because of me. My mother wasn’t dead…but they told me she had passed away.”

After four months in prison Farzad was taken to a court room and sentenced to death by a Mullah.

“We find you guilty and you are going to be hung,” the judge told a stunned Farzad.

A week later guards came to his cell late at night. He was told he would not be allowed to see anyone but could write a will before he was hanged. He was taken to the gallows before being told that his execution would not take place.

Farzad breaks down crying for a second time as he recalls the mock execution. We pause again.

When he resumes speaking, he explains that he was released from prison not long after his court appearance but only after bail was arranged by his lawyer. He was so physically ill that he spent one month in hospital in Tehran – but once better he fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before paying smugglers to take him to Europe.

The journey to Britain took him through Italy. He says that days spent crammed inside a lorry were excruciating because there were so many people. He recalls that somewhere in Italy the lorry was stopped by police and, once outside, he collapsed to the ground. But instead of being helped he was beaten by a policeman, so badly that he passed out.

Farzad eventually arrived in Britain and thought he was finally safe but the Home Office decided he was lying and he was locked up again. Farzad starts crying once more.

Some staff in Dungavel were fine, he says, but others seemed to take pleasure in the fact that he was due to be removed from the UK. His tormentors included an immigration official who decided it was necessary to show Farzad the actual plane ticket that would take him to Italy. Three days later, he broke a razor in a bathroom, removed the blade and started cutting himself.

“I used it on my neck and arms. One of the guards came into the room when I was about to cut my throat. They weren’t listening to what I was saying about fear of being sent back to Italy. So, even in Scotland I was mentally tortured. The only difference between this detention centre and the other one, was that they were not beating you up. But it was the same mental torture,” he says.

Farzad was released from Dungavel shortly after his suicide attempt in 2012 but only after his lawyer found a psychologist who submitted a report to the government.

It is unclear how many people are tortured on return to their homeland but FfT has recorded 66 cases of Sri Lankans being tortured after they went back. Most returned voluntarily but some were deported by the UK government because their asylum claims were rejected.

A new report by FfT says: “We have now completed medico-legal reports for a total of 66 people detained and tortured after returning to Sri Lanka from the UK in the post-war period. The majority were questioned about their reasons for being in the UK, their activities and/or their contacts in the UK.”

“They have reported torture by a range of state actors, including the Criminal Investigation Department, the Terrorism Investigation Department, the police, “security” and the army.”

The charity added that last year it received 17 referrals from Sri Lanka – including a child – who were tortured after President Sirisena’s election in January 2015.

Other nationalities being deported from Britain despite widespread human rights abuses in their homelands include Eritreans. Last year, the UN said Eritrea was guilty of: “Extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and forced labour on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere”.

But in March 2015 the Home Office suddenly changed its position and Eritrea was deemed safe for asylum seekers to return to. At the time, Human Rights Watch said the decision was based exclusively on a flawed report that suggested there had been improvements in the human rights situation.

“The reliance on a weak and discredited report suggests the Home Office is more interested in keeping asylum seekers out than in protecting people in danger,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch.

A few months later, Amnesty International claimed that the UK Government had been complicit in torture by facilitating sales of torture equipment to oppressive regimes.

Amnesty protested against the 2015 London Arms Fair (Defence and Security Equipment International), a biannual event when UK firms sell weaponry to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan. Amnesty pointed out that illegal torture equipment on sale at previous events included electric shock batons, stun guns and leg irons.

More recently, the government was condemned for detaining torture survivors. Last month the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that detention should only be used as a last resort and “is not suitable for victims of torture and trafficking”.

Meanwhile, a campaign has begun to oppose the government’s plan to raise the cost for asylum seekers appealing against negative decisions. Asylum and immigration tribunal fees are set to increase by more than 500 per cent, raising fees from £140 to £800. Critics say many people will simply be unable to pay and will face deportation.

Indeed, there is mounting concern over the UK Government’s apparent disregard for human rights with regards to asylum seekers. FfT doctors are gravely concerned that innocent people may die because of the way the Home Office treats claims of torture.

Juliet Cohen is Head of Doctors with FfT and an internationally recognised expert in torture. Her role is to oversee 50 doctors working in five centres across the UK and to support them in documenting evidence for medico-legal reports.

According to Cohen, government officials who are unqualified medically have been “pushing up the evidential bar” for people trying to prove they were tortured.

“We’ve been seeing some very clear cases where medical experts have been documenting physical and psychological evidence of torture – very clear and very strong cases,” Cohen says.

“But they are still being systematically undermined by UK Visa and Immigration case workers who seem to misunderstand the evidence itself, and the standards to which the evidence should be held.”

She adds that civil servants are challenging the authority and independence of doctors while replacing expert medical evidence with their own “pseudo clinical judgement”.

“This is very inappropriate,” Cohen says, adding that torture survivors are being denied protection as a consequence.

What is “particularly disturbing”, she continues, is that the Home Office has specific asylum policy instructions for staff on how to assess medical evidence. These instructions state that doctors writing reports should be accepted as independent experts who adhere to the Istanbul Protocol and its requirement for accuracy and impartiality.

In 2015, FfT produced 238 MLRs but Cohen says that 42 were challenged by the Home Office – that’s nearly one out of every five reports submitted.

Specifically, FfT says the downplaying of verified physical evidence of torture by officials is problematic. When there is physical evidence, a doctor – in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol – will assess the level of consistency of a scar, or other physical evidence, with the attribution of torture as described by the person.

A doctor may conclude that the evidence is diagnostic which means it could not have been caused in any other way – or they could deem the physical evidence to be ‘highly consistent’ or ‘consistent’ with someone’s claims.

“Even if someone has one or two scars that are diagnostic, they (officials) say that’s not enough – so that’s one way they distort the evidence that’s presented,” Cohen says.

Case workers have also been separating physical and psychological evidence of torture, the latter just as relevant as the former in asylum claims. This is plain wrong, Cohen says, stressing that psychological evidence is very important and many forms of torture don’t leave physical evidence.

Another major area of concern surrounds Rule 35, a safeguard for a detention to be reviewed on medical grounds.

Rule 35 was devised so that concerns raised by a doctor in an immigration centre would result in a detainee alleging torture being released. Cohen says that release should follow a reasonable concern being raised but officials have been refusing to accept Rule 35 reports.

As a consequence, only 15 per cent of Rule 35 reports resulted in someone’s release in 2014. Furthermore, the Home Office is committed to a full policy review with a view to tightening the rules which, the charity fears, will mean pushing the bar up even higher.

In Cohen’s view, there is no requirement to change Rule 35. She says the government should simply implement the policy as it stands and have faith in GPs and accept their reports to protect traumatized people.

The Home Office said in response: “The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those who genuinely need our protection. All claims for asylum are considered on their individual merits, and where people establish a genuine need for protection, or a well founded fear of persecution, refuge will be granted.”

In 2010 over a period of six months, I interviewed 16 torture survivors living in Glasgow and half said their asylum claims had been rejected by the UK Government. They included a filmmaker called Serge from DRC, who lifted up his T-shirt and showed me burn marks on his body. He’d sent pictures of his torture wounds to the Home Office but officials still refused his application.

Likewise, a woman called Akua from Burundi had been told by Britain that it was safe for her to return to her homeland. She was terrified. She’d been raped in front of her husband by a Tutsi militia who then shot him dead.

Another story involved an Iranian man who’d suffered dreadfully at the hands of the regime. The 28-year-old former student – who asked to be referred to as Dust – explained that he was arrested in 2006 for involvement in anti-government protests at Tehran University.

He was held without charge for 18 days and severely assaulted. On release he learned that he’d been thrown off his university course – an extra punishment by the Iranian state for daring to dissent.

After arriving in Scotland, Dust also tried to take his own life although he wasn’t imprisoned in Dungavel like his fellow countryman, Farzad. When we met, Dust had been receiving counselling once a week by FfT and he said his mental health was improving after leaving hospital.

He was finally mending, albeit slowly, as was a refugee from Sudan called Yassir who was a tormented soul when we first met. He wore brown frayed chords and black shoes burst at the soles and he explained that he’d been living on the streets of Glasgow. He often raked bins for food.

During the week, Yassir slept in Glasgow Green but the park was too dangerous to stay there at the weekends, he said, due to violent drunks. So, for safety, Yassir relocated to a graveyard in the south side of the city every Friday to sleep beside the dead.

He wore a silver wedding ring on his left hand, a poignant reminder of a past life that was shattered by tribal political violence in Darfur.

Yassir – aged 38 then – had lost his mother, father, two sisters and two brothers in violence. He was tortured by police in Salah Prison and lost contact with his wife and children.

“They beat me…they beat me…they beat me,” Yassir repeated over and over again while holding his head in his hands in an interview that lasted nearly three hours. For the most part, he was slumped forward in a chair with his elbows resting on his knees, looking down at his feet. He did not make eye contact once.

At one point, he reached into a plastic bag and brought out a clay model that he’d made during therapy. His artwork depicted a bloodied man strapped to a bed. Another clay model he’d made was of a small figure clutching a begging bowl, a stark representation of what Yassir felt his life had been reduced to after arriving in Scotland.

He’d been counselled by Norma McKinnon for two years and she said at the time: “Yassir has made good progress but it’s taken a bit of time to get to this point,” adding: “as it does with many people who come here.”

A few weeks ago, with her help, I interviewed Yassir once again, seven years on from our first meeting. He was sitting in the same chair in McKinnon’s office and stood up smiling when I walked in. He made eye contact and over the next hour or so he talked about his life. He said he feels more in control and that he wants to go to college. He feels safe in Scotland.

“Glasgow is my home now because I have made some friends,” Yassir said. “I have local people who are friends and I have new friends from Syria. People don’t come to the UK to get money, they come from war to save their lives.”

The transformation in Yassir was quite remarkable – and McKinnon says that Farzad is coping too.

She added: “Both Yassir and Farzad told me when we first met that they had thought of taking their own lives, these were the circumstances of our early therapeutic work together. Neither feel that way today.”

“Yassir has told me that therapy helped him write a story for his life, that he would carry words from our sessions together with him and he credits this with helping save his life when things were really difficult. I have witnessed huge changes in him, truly transformative.”

“Farzad has also been really generous when explaining how therapy has helped. He told me that he used to live with fear and uncertainty, and that therapy has provided not only a treatment for his mental health but also for his soul. He now says that stress, anxiety and depression are now all past tense and that in therapy hope for the future was restored.”

“Two truly extraordinary men, I am privileged to have learned from them, as people they have so much to give.”

For his part, Farzad says McKinnon has given him hope of finding a new life in Scotland.

“I had a lot of nightmares about things that happened to me,” he says. “But I talked to Norma about my nightmares. Now, I am so happy and look forward to coming here. She has put me on the right path after all my problems. Before I came here I thought it would be best to end my life.”

“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other innocent people in Iran. I want the world to know what they did to me.”

“Everyone thinks that after Rouhani became president all these types of things stopped. That’s not the case. There is more torture now than before. And more executions. I want everyone to know what is happening in Iran.”

Illustrations by Chris Manson

Photographs and video by Angela Catlin

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