February 15-16 Conference Features Panel of Torture Survivors who Address their Struggle for Justice

In 1983, Carlos R. Mauricio was a professor at a university in El Salvador. He was teaching one day when armed men arrived at his classroom and took him, blindfolded and handcuffed, to a waiting car in which he was driven to an underground cell.

It was the start of an 11-day ordeal of repeated torture.

“I knew I was going to be killed,” Mauricio said. “I knew my fate. I had been witnessing my friends and relatives abducted and killed and then, a few days later, their corpses, mutilated and thrown in the street.”

Mauricio was a member of a recent panel at American University Washington College of Law, “Voices of the Survivors: Involvement in Legal Trials.”

The panel was part of a two-day conference, “Forensic Evidence in the Fight against Torture,” held in partnership with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and with support from the European Commission.

“We were pleased to host this exchange among some of the world’s leading human rights experts to help contribute to the prevention and exposure of torture,” said Claudio Grossman, dean, American University Washington College of Law and chair of the U.N. Committee against Torture of the conference. “We were honored to co-sponsor this event with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, which has spearheaded a worldwide effort to use forensic evidence in the fight against torture.”

This conference marked the conclusion of the IRCT’s three-year project to strengthen the collaboration of health, and legal and human rights practitioners in the use of medical expertise for strategic litigation cases in the fight against torture. Conference sessions covered fighting impunity, national, regional, and international best practices, challenges, and emerging developments.

“The story was coming out and I couldn’t suppress it anymore.”

The “Voices of the Survivors” panel presented stories from survivors of torture and from caregivers who support them as they prepare to testify against the perpetrators.

“It is so important for we, the victims, to be allowed to say what happened,” Mauricio said. “In many ways, what we are looking for is justice. To find justice, we have to find the truth first. But in order to find the truth, the survivors must be allowed to speak.”

Mauricio was a member of the opposition party in El Salvador and his torturers were part of the national police. They beat him and ordered him to confess to having been to Cuba for revolutionary training. By the 11th day he falsely confessed to end the torture, but his torturers did not believe his story and continued to beat him. Although detainees taken to the underground cells were often killed, a guard later took Mauricio back upstairs and forgot to return him to the cells below.  A Red Cross worker happened to find him and the torturers allowed Mauricio to leave with worker.  To this day, Mauricio says, that stroke of luck is responsible for his survival.

He moved to Mexico, and eventually the United States, where he left teaching to become an activist in the fight against torture.

“For 11 years, I refused to talk about my experience in the prison,” he said. “But the story was coming out and I couldn’t suppress it anymore.”

In 2002, the Center for Justice and Accountability approached him to join as one of the plaintiffs in the trials of two Salvadoran generals, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and José Guillermo Garcia, accused of being behind the torture.  The case is known as Romagoza Arce v. Garcia and Vides Casanova.

“After I left the courtroom...I felt vindicated in many ways,” he said.

“It was very painful for me to recall my past.”

Sothara Muny, a psychiatrist with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization in Cambodia whose parents were victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, works with survivors and relatives of survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was created to try the perpetrators of the genocide and torture that lasted from 1975 to 1979. Victims can participate as civil parties to seek reparations, but they first must be approved by the court. The process can cause survivors to have to relive the experience, Muny said. TPO works with survivors before, during and after trial.

“It was very painful for me to recall my past. It was like opening an old wound,” Muny recalled one victim saying. Another, however, was “relieved” to be summoned to the tribunal to testify. Most of the victims who testified said the trial gave them a sense of solidarity with other survivors, a sense of social support and an opportunity to tell their stories.

Carlos Jibaja is the director of the Center of Psychosocial Attention in Peru. The organization assists torture survivors.  At the panel, Jibaja told the story of Florencia. 

From 1980 to 2000, the Marxist group Shining Path was engaging in violence across the country and the national police was trying to recapture control. Sexual violence and abuse of women was one of the police force’s main tactics. In 1980, police found Florencia walking with her family on a road and imprisoned her. She was raped by multiple members of the police force. After three months she was released, and she discovered she was pregnant.

The 17-year-old reported her rape to officials, and in 1982 the perpetrators were charged. The district attorney denounced the officers. But in 1985, they were absolved and the legal process was dropped for lack of evidence.  The Human Rights Commission took up Florencia’s cause in November 2005 and is spearheading her new case.  Florencia has vowed to continue fighting.

“After so much time, I think, why give them the satisfaction?” Jibaja quoted Florencia. “They are going to continue doing to the people those abuses. It is not convenient for them to have everything they did come out into the light. I will continue to claim for justice so there are no more abuses against others. I tell my lawyer that while he fights, I will continue to fight, until the day I do not exist any more.”

“I have the power.  I will be there to remind him that I have come to be a witness.”

Mauricio, the first panelist, is now the executive director of the Stop Impunity Project, a group for Salvadoran survivors of torture living in the United States. He has since returned to the chamber where he was tortured. He recognized the floor — the only part of the building that was visible to him while he was blindfolded.

“I began to remember what happened to me in 1983,” he said. “I told the lieutenant: ‘This is the same floor that I saw 28 years ago. They forgot to change the floor.’ I found the places in which I was taken. They took away many things, but myself, as a victim of torture, I have been able to find the clues.”

The two Salvadoran generals were placed in deportation proceedings in 2009. Mauricio regularly goes to the court hearings in Miami.

Mauricio’s organization, the Stop Impunity Project, refers to what he calls the impunity of the perpetrators. 

“They would do it again,” he said.  He would like to see a museum in San Salvador devoted to exposing the torture inflicted by the national police and the military, so that people will never forget.

“I was in the torture chamber, but now things have changed,” he said. “I have the power. I will be there to remind him that I have come to be a witness.”

Contributing to the Prevention and Exposure of Torture

In addition to the conference, American University Washington College of Law has developed numerous initiatives to help contribute to the realization of the objectives of the Convention against Torture including other conferences on the prevention of torture, reparation for torture victims, and strengthening visits to places of detention, as well as special programs on the study and research of the prevention of torture including the United Nations Committee against Torture Project.