Monday, November 14, 2005

The Face of Torture, by Susan Dicklitch

Torture is an ugly word. But what does it really look like? I recently found out when I sat through the testimony of a thirty-something Cameroonian woman who was seeking asylum in the United States.
Claudette (not her real name) clutched her hands nervously as she sat in the sterile immigration courtroom. She was surrounded by her support team, a Harvard-trained pro-bono lawyer working for a large law firm in Washington, a clinical psychologist specializing on victims of torture, a representative from C.A.i.R Coalition (Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition), and me, a country conditions expert on Cameroon.
Within two to three hours, Claudette would find out her fate – whether she would remain in the United States, or be deported back to Cameroon and possibly face more torture. It was no wonder that she was so nervous. Only one out of five asylum cases that are referred to an immigration judge are granted asylum.
It is estimated that about 5,000 asylum seekers are held in detention in the United States, awaiting their immigration court hearing. Since 1996 with the implementation of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), any asylum seeker who enters the United States without proper documentation is detained. Also, unlike criminal law, asylum seekers are not entitled to the equivalent of a public defender. If they can afford to hire a lawyer, or have pro-bono legal advice, they are lucky, if not, they have to present their case in an adversarial hearing, pro se, in front of a government trial attorney, and an Immigration Judge. Asylum seekers have to prove that they have both a subjectively and objectively credible “well-founded fear” of past persecution and/or future persecution.
Claudette had a better chance than most – she had a team of experts working for her, and she was not in detention.
But this was little consolation to Claudette who looked so frail and scared, struggling to retell her encounter with torture. She spoke of being forced to watch others being tortured, of being threatened with rape and electrocution of her private parts. She showed us scares from cigarette butts put out on her arm, and she recounted how she was forced to clean up the human feces left in the prison cells. It was the smell that still haunts her on a daily basis, so much so that she refuses to eat very much to avoid having to defecate.
She started to talk about her third and final detention in one of Cameroon’s most notorious prisons, La Gendarmerie du Lac. Because she was Francophone and required a government-issued translator, there was often a pregnant pause between questions from the Immigration Judge and the BICE (Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) trial attorney, and the translated response. When the translator asked her to repeat herself at one point, Claudette lost it, screaming out, “du Lac”, “du Lac”, sobbing uncontrollably. Everyone in the courtroom froze, as Claudette gushed out a guttural “kkkkkk” sound, unable to stop reliving her traumatic experiences.
Thankfully, the Judge, sensing the inhumanity of making her continue with her testimony ordered everyone out of the courtroom except for Claudette’s psychologist. I sat in the waiting room with the others, avoiding their eyes, and trying to hide my tears, shocked by my own reaction to Claudette’s testimony. We tried to ignore the continuing shrieks coming from Courtroom 4.
But why would this soft-spoken, intelligent woman be subjected to torture by government security forces? Was she a terrorist, a freedom-fighter, or a threat to society?
Claudette was detained and tortured because she dared to express her political opinion. She had participated in political demonstrations in Cameroon against the government’s detention of a prominent journalist, and the murder of nine boys (the infamous Bependa 9) by a government-sponsored shady paramilitary group called the Operational Command.
I was intimately familiar with Claudette’s case, having read it many times whilst preparing my own affidavit in support of her asylum case. But I never felt her case.
All of us in that courtroom shared the anguish of having to watch Claudette relive her torture – what psychologists call secondary trauma. We shared the shame of humanity that allowed this to happen to this mother of two, but most of all, we shared an unspoken relief that we live in a country that continues to allow individuals to freely express their political opinion, and even protest in the streets without being arrested or detained.
Claudette was granted asylum that day, but she will never be free from the scars of her torture. We got off lucky that day, we just stared torture in the face.


UltimateWriter said...

Very sad story. It's sickening to know that this type of stuff is being perpetrated on fellow humans in this day and age. Don't stop promoting this type of story to raise awareness.

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Vern Green said...

I will agree, this is a real tragedy. I think the most tragic thing of it all is here we have a person who is trying to do the right thing, through the proper legal channels and get into this country. It is too bad, because if she had just gone to Mexico first, she could have saved herself a lot of trouble and just walked across the border without anyone saying anything.

Seriously though, we have immigration laws in this country for a reason, it is too bad that we are so selective about who those laws apply to.

Anthony Pepe said...

As someone who works for U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement, I get to see the actual files the government keeps on aliens. I've come across a few cases like this, and it's good see that our immigration system and immigration officials can be compassionate and fair (although I'm sure the asylum grant is little consolation for the horrific torture this Cameroonian woman suffered). I think a huge part of the reason that so few people are granted asylum is the fact that, unfortunately, a lot of illegal immigrants abuse the system - almost everyone knows that when they are caught by U.S. Immigration, if they claim asylum, they will get to stay here until their case is adjudicated (I know, I know - it is usually in prison - but our officers have had countless detainees tell them they would rather sit in a U.S. prison indefinitely than return to their home countries). As such, a large proportion of asylum claims that immigration judges hear are fabricated, which causes many of the judges to scrutinize asylum cases much more closely and makes them less inclined to grant asylum.

Another significant part of the problem is the screening process for credible fear. When an alien claims credible fear of returning to their home country, he or she first receives an interview with an officer from APSO (the Asylum Pre-Screening Office, part of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). The APSO officer makes a determination on whether the person's fear is credible, and if found, he or she refers the case to an immigration judge for an asylum hearing. I know from speaking to several APSO officers that their standards are incredibly low, so they find credible fear for almost every person they interview (one APSO officer told me it's something like 98% of cases). This has two very important consequences: first, it pretty much defeats the purpose of the pre-screening process since almost every asylum-seeker gets a hearing before an immigration judge regardless of the legitimacy of his claim; second, many APSO officers do not take their work very seriously because they feel like they are a worthless link in the bureaucracy.

Certainly, our asylum system needs some reforms in order to prevent the fakers from ruining it for those with legitimate claims. I think one such reform would be to raise the standards for the screening process so that fewer cases make it the immigration judges - that way, they will be more inclined to grant asylum since they will hear fewer illegitimate claims.

jane k said...

I found myself in 2007 reading this post that you wrote in 2005 and I can’t help but think that in this period of time the only change was change for the worst.

Claudette’s story is truly heartbreaking. In part, I believe because of your ability to describe it so well. I think most of the people hearing or reading about torture never really stop to picture or feel what it is. Most of us normal, sensitive people avoid the overly descriptive accounts or pictures for the fear of how they will make us feel. No one who hadn’t been through that or have talked to the people who experienced it firsthand will be able to feel the horror and depravity of it. “I was intimately familiar with Claudette’s case, having read it many times whilst preparing my own affidavit in support of her asylum case. But I never felt her case.” I think this is a truly illuminating remark.
I think that many people feel disgust and horror, and, unfortunately, powerlessness, when they read about the crimes perpetrated against innocent people all over the world for voicing their opinions, for having enough courage to stand up to their governments. However, your mentioning of feeling “an unspoken relief that we live in a country that continues to allow individuals to freely express their political opinion, and even protest in the streets without being arrested or detained” made me think.
It made me think about the movie I saw just yesterday (I highly recommend it, by the way). The movie is called “Rendition”. I think that the name says it all (at least to the people who have not been oblivious to the things going on in this country lately). For those who want to refresh their memory here is an AI article USA/JORDAN/YEMEN
Torture and secret detention: Testimony of the ‘disappeared’ in the ‘war on terror’.
It also made me think about the US Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey. For those not familiar with his views on waterbording, I would like to quote one of his responses, which I find particularly amusing.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asked Mukasey about waterboarding during the second day of his confirmation hearings on October 18.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Finish that thought. So, is waterboarding constitutional?
MICHAEL MUKASEY: I don’t know what’s involved in the technique. If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: “If waterboarding is constitutional” is a massive hedge.
MICHAEL MUKASEY: No, I said if it’s torture. I’m sorry, I said if it’s torture.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: If it’s torture. That’s a massive hedge. I mean, it either is, or it isn’t. Do you have an opinion on whether waterboarding, which is the practice of putting somebody in a reclining position, strapping him down, putting cloth over their faces and pouring water over the cloth to simulate the feeling of drowning -- is that constitutional?
MICHAEL MUKASEY: If it amounts to torture, it is not constitutional.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I’m very disappointed in that answer. I think it is purely semantic.
You might reply that waterbording does not compare with the torture Claudette went through. Is it really torture? Or may be it’s just…. “enhanced interrogation technique”? And may be… suicides of Guantanamo detainees are just “asymmetric warfare”? (I can’t find the link to this one, but I remember that this specimen of newspeak that we employ now to describe what is done to human beings in our name particularly shocked me.) Rear Admiral John Hutson, who also testified at, Mukasey’s confirmation hearing, might disagree with the view that waterbording is just a conversation taken to another level. He believes that other than perhaps the rack and thumbscrews, waterboarding is the most iconic example of torture in history. I tend to agree with his view.
I realize that for some (including me) seeing words “torture” and “US policy” in the same sentence is nauseating, but so is seeing the pictures from Abu Ghraib or reading about Maher Arar. But I do not think that saying “enhanced interrogation technique” instead of “torture” or just closing my eyes and pretending that it is not happening will bring me any solace.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Interview with CNN news, 24 June 2005: "They got a brand new facility down at Guantánamo"; "We spent a lot of money to build it. They're very well treated there. They're living in the tropics. They're well fed. They've got everything they could possibly want."
Congressional Representative Duncan Hunter, news conference, 13 June 2005: "inmates have never eaten better ... they've never been treated better, and they've never been more comfortable in their lives."
I suggest these two fine gentlemen spent some time in this comfortable facility they are referring to. I also believe that some people in this administration will fit right in with people detained as terrorists in Gitmo (some of whom might be an unfortunate Arab speaker, who happened to be in a wrong place at a wrong time. We’ll never know, because they apparently do not deserve a real trial, or any type of due process I know for a fact that I am not alone in thinking that: “On Visit to France, Donald Rumsfeld Hit with Lawsuit for Ordering, Authorizing Torture”.
Claudette’s case is truly tragic. What is equally tragic and disturbing is that what we thought to be a gruesome and horrific method of crushing dissent in the dictatorships, has now taken roots in this country, in this society. Long convoluted definitions have been invented, sterile, unrealistic hypotheticals have been thrown into the discourse and treated as axioms, appeals to our most base emotions, to fear and revenge, have become a central in political rhetoric. And in the end, we make ourselves believe what we are told. We do not torture. Period.

Dr. D said...

Jane K.
thank you for your thoughtful comment and additional links.
You are right -- things have only gotten worse. I see it in my students. They don't think that waterboarding is such a bad thing....if the person is a terrorist. But the CAT convention doesn't give exceptions. Apparently, the Bush administration does.