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Karen Tse: How to stop torture

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In 1994, I walked into a prison in Cambodia, and I met a 12-year-old boy who had been tortured and was denied access to counsel. And as I looked into his eyes, I realized that for the hundreds of letters I had written for political prisoners, that I would never have written a letter for him, because he was not a 12-year-old boy who had done something important for anybody. He was not a political prisoner. He was a 12-year-old boy who had stolen a bicycle. What I also realized at that point was that it was not only Cambodia, but of the 113 developing countries that torture, 93 of these countries have all passed laws that say you have a right to a lawyer and you have a right not to be tortured.

And what I recognized was that there was an incredible window of opportunity for us as a world community to come together and end torture as an investigative tool. We often think of torture as being political torture or reserved for just the worst, but, in fact, 95 percent of torture today is not for political prisoners. It is for people who are in broken-down legal systems, and unfortunately because torture is the cheapest form of investigation -- it's cheaper than having a legal system, cheaper than having a lawyer and early access to counsel -- it is what happens most of the time. I believe today that it is possible for us as a world community, if we make a decision, to come together and end torture as an investigative tool in our lifetime, but it will require three things. First is the training, empowerment, and connection of defenders worldwide.

The second is insuring that there is systematic early access to counsel. And the third is commitment. So in the year 2000, I began to wonder, what if we came together? Could we do something for these 93 countries? And I founded International Bridges to Justice which has a specific mission of ending torture as an investigative tool and implementing due process rights in the 93 countries by placing trained lawyers at an early stage in police stations and in courtrooms. My first experiences, though, did come from Cambodia, and at the time I remember first coming to Cambodia and there were, in 1994, still less than 10 attorneys in the country because the Khmer Rouge had killed them all.

And even 20 years later, there was only 10 lawyers in the country, so consequently you'd walk into a prison and not only would you meet 12-year-old boys, you'd meet women and you'd say, "Why are you here?" Women would say, "Well I've been here for 10 years because my husband committed a crime, but they can't find him." So it's just a place where there was no rule of law.

The first group of defenders came together and I still remember, as I was training, I said, "Okay, what do you do for an investigation?" And there was silence in the class, and finally one woman stood up, [inaudible name], and she said "Khrew," which means "teacher." She said, "I have defended more than a hundred people, and I've never had to do any investigation, because they all come with confessions."

And we talked about, as a class, the fact that number one, the confessions might not be reliable, but number two, we did not want to encourage the police to keep doing this, especially as it was now against the law. And it took a lot of courage for these defenders to decide that they would begin to stand up and support each other in implementing these laws. And I still remember the first cases where they came, all 25 together, she would stand up, and they were in the back, and they would support her, and the judges kept saying, "No, no, no, no, we're going to do things the exact same way we've been doing them."

But one day the perfect case came, and it was a woman who was a vegetable seller, she was sitting outside of a house. She said she actually saw the person run out who she thinks stole whatever the jewelry was, but the police came, they got her, there was nothing on her. She was pregnant at the time. She had cigarette burns on her. She'd miscarried. And when they brought her case to the judge, for the first time he stood up and he said, "Yes, there's no evidence except for your torture confession and you will be released."

And the defenders began to take cases over and over again and you will see, they have step by step began to change the course of history in Cambodia. But Cambodia is not alone. I used to think, well is it Cambodia? Or is it other countries? But it is in so many countries.

In Burundi I walked into a prison and it wasn't a 12-year-old boy, it was an 8-year-old boy for stealing a mobile phone. Or a woman, I picked up her baby, really cute baby, I said "Your baby is so cute." It wasn't a baby, she was three. And she said "Yeah, but she's why I'm here," because she was accused of stealing two diapers and an iron for her baby and still had been in prison. And when I walked up to the prison director, I said, "You've got to let her out. A judge would let her out." And he said, "Okay, we can talk about it, but look at my prison. Eighty percent of the two thousand people here are without a lawyer. What can we do?" So lawyers began to courageously stand up together to organize a system where they can take cases. But we realized that it's not only the training of the lawyers, but the connection of the lawyers that makes a difference.

For example, in Cambodia, it was that [inaudible name] did not go alone but she had 24 lawyers with her who stood up together. And in the same way, in China, they always tell me, "It's like a fresh wind in the desert when we can come together." Or in Zimbabwe, where I remember Innocent, after coming out of a prison where everybody stood up and said, "I've been here for one year, eight years, 12 years without a lawyer," he came and we had a training together and he said, "I have heard it said" -- because he had heard people mumbling and grumbling -- "I have heard it said that we cannot help to create justice because we do not have the resources." And then he said, "But I want you to know that the lack of resources is never an excuse for injustice." And with that, he successfully organized 68 lawyers who have been systematically taking the cases.

The key that we see, though, is training and then early access. I was recently in Egypt, and was inspired to meet with another group of lawyers, and what they told me is that they said, "Hey, look, we don't have police on the streets now. The police are one of the main reasons why we had the revolution. They were torturing everybody all the time." And I said, "But there's been tens of millions of dollars that have recently gone in to the development of the legal system here. What's going on?" I met with one of the development agencies, and they were training prosecutors and judges, which is the normal bias, as opposed to defenders. And they showed me a manual which actually was an excellent manual. I said, "I'm gonna copy this." It had everything in it. Lawyers can come at the police station. It was perfect. Prosecutors were perfectly trained. But I said to them, "I just have one question, which is, by the time that everybody got to the prosecutor's office, what had happened to them?" And after a pause, they said, "They had been tortured."

So the pieces are, not only the training of the lawyers, but us finding a way to systematically implement early access to counsel, because they are the safeguard in the system for people who are being tortured. And as I tell you this, I'm also aware of the fact that it sounds like, "Oh, okay, it sounds like we could do it, but can we really do it?" Because it sounds big. And there are many reasons why I believe it's possible. The first reason is the people on the ground who find ways of creating miracles because of their commitment. It's not only Innocent, who I told you about in Zimbabwe, but defenders all over the world who are looking for these pieces. We have a program called JusticeMakers, and we realized there are people that are courageous and want to do things, but how can we support them? So it's an online contest where it's only five thousand dollars if you come up with and innovative way of implementing justice. And there are 30 JusticeMakers throughout the world, from Sri Lanka to Swaziland to the DRC, who with five thousand dollars do amazing things, through SMS programs, through paralegal programs, through whatever they can do.

And it's not only these JusticeMakers, but people we courageously see figure out who their networks are and how they can move it forward.

So in China, for instance, great laws came out where it says police cannot torture people or they will be punished. And I was sitting side by side with one of our very courageous lawyers, and said, "How can we get this out? How can we make sure that this is implemented? This is fantastic." And he said to me, "Well, do you have money?" And I said, "No." And he said, "That's okay, we can still figure it out." And on December 4, he organized three thousand members of the Youth Communist League, from 14 of the top law schools, who organized themselves, developed posters with the new laws, and went to the police stations and began what he says is a non-violent legal revolution to protect citizen rights. So I talked about the fact that we need to train and support defenders. We need to systematically implement early access to counsel. But the third and most important thing is that we make a commitment to this.

And people often say to me, "You know, this is great, but it's wildly idealistic. Never going to happen." And the reason that I think that those words are interesting is because those were the same kinds of words that were used for people who decided they would end slavery, or end apartheid. It began with a small group of people who decided they would commit.

Now, there's one of our favorite poems from the defenders, which they share from each other, is: "Take courage friends, the road is often long, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high, but deep down, you are not alone." And I believe that if we can come together as a world community to support not only defenders, but also everyone in the system who is looking towards it, we can end torture as an investigative tool. I end always, because I'm sure the questions are -- and I'd be happy to talk to you at any point -- "But what can I really do?" Well, I would say this. First of all, you know what you can do. But second of all, I would leave you with the story of Vishna, who actually was my inspiration for starting International Bridges to Justice.

Vishna was a 4-year-old boy when I met him who was born in a Cambodian prison in Kandal Province. But because he was born in the prison, everybody loved him, including the guards, so he was the only one who was allowed to come in and out of the bars. So, you know, there's bars. And by the time that Vishna was getting bigger, which means what gets bigger? Your head gets bigger. So he would come to the first bar, the second bar and then the third bar, and then really slowly move his head so he could fit through, and come back, third, second, first. And he would grab my pinkie, because what he wanted to do every day is he wanted to go visit. You know, he never quite made it to all of them every day, but he wanted to visit all 156 prisoners. And I would lift him, and he would put his fingers through. Or if they were dark cells, it was like iron corrugated, and he would put his fingers through.

And most of the prisoners said that he was their greatest joy and their sunshine, and they looked forward to him. And I was like, here's Vishna. He's a 4-year-old boy. He was born in a prison with almost nothing, no material goods, but he had a sense of his own heroic journey, which I believe we are all born into. He said, "Probably I can't do everything. But I'm one. I can do something. And I will do the one thing that I can do." So I thank you for having the prophetic imagination to imagine the shaping of a new world with us together, and invite you into this journey with us.

Thank you.


Thank you.


Thank you.


Video Details

Duration: 12 minutes and 22 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 253
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 10, 2011

Political prisoners aren't the only ones being tortured -- the vast majority of judicial torture happens in ordinary cases, even in 'functioning' legal systems. Social activist Karen Tse shows how we can, and should, stand up and end the use of routine torture.

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