Freedom from Torture - Why are people tortured?

Why are people tortured?

At Freedom from Torture we have supported thousands of survivors to rebuild their lives since we started in 1985. In 2015 we provided therapy for 1299 torture survivors from 65 countries.

The survivors we support are people like us: men, women, children, parents, students, and workers. Those who have reached safety here in the UK represent a small number of those tortured around the world for many reasons.

Click the headings below to discover ten reasons people have been tortured.

In most cases we have changed survivors’ names to protect them and their families. Please bear in mind these are just some of the worst stories we’ve heard. We could tell many more.

1. He wanted an education not war

As a teenager, David refused to join a violent army in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Instead David joined a group that held peaceful protests against violence and encouraged young people to turn to education and prayer.

During one peaceful protest the army opened fire. David escaped the bullets but saw many of his friends killed. He was then beaten and arrested on the spot. He spent six months in prison, where he was taken from his cell three times a week to be tortured. The guards would often pour cold water on him before they whipped him, so it would be even more painful. The beatings were often so hard that he bled from his mouth and ears.

Fearing for his life, David’s family bribed a soldier from their village to release him, and they arranged for him to escape alone to the UK. He came to Freedom from Torture, still a teenager.

2. She was married to a wanted man

When she was 18-years-old, Sri Lankan Anuja entered into an arranged marriage with a man who later left to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – often called the Tamil Tigers. Their son was just six-months-old and at first she didn’t know where he had gone.

Anuja's husband stayed with the LTTE for 13 years, rising to a senior position before dying whilst fighting. When the war ended, Anuja was moved to a camp where she was interrogated and asked where her husband was. She spent a year there and at one point the soldiers smashed her head into a metal bar when she refused to undress.

Security agents continued to threaten her on release and eventually arrested her again. She was again interrogated about her dead husband and tortured repeatedly, including with rape and burning with cigarettes.

Eventually her brother paid a bribe for her release. No one knew the whereabouts of her new husband and son. Days later, distraught, she took a plane to safety in the UK.

3. He taught children their traditional language

Image by DFID

Alaz saw Kurdish people routinely harassed and persecuted all his life in Syria. Until his arrest, he worked to campaign for their equal rights and to pass on their rich culture to the next generation.

Alaz helped local children learn the Kurdish language. Speaking the language was made illegal, so many families had to do it in secret. When Alaz was arrested, his captors tortured him for the names of the Kurdish men and women he knew, and children he had taught. Despite being tortured daily and hung upside down for hours on end, Alaz never gave them up.

After months, Alaz was released and, his life at risk, he was forced to make the decision to leave his family and escape Syria. He fled to Turkey but because of his history of fighting for Kurdish rights he still wasn’t safe. After a long and difficult journey, Alaz eventually arrived in the UK.

4. She advocated for women’s rights

The day they arrested her in Iran, Faryad was just one term away from completing her Masters in Sociology. She had been a teacher for 18 years, but her life changed when she was blindfolded and taken away in a car, after taking part in International Women’s Day.

Faryad had tried to help others by speaking out for girls’ education and against honour killings and domestic violence. But the government would not tolerate her speaking out.

During a month in detention, she was insulted, beaten, threatened and, after her food was drugged, raped. She lived the next couple of years in fear of her life. Her sister and brother had already been executed, and petrified of the same fate, she fled Iran.

Faryad travelled for 40 days before being dropped off in London by a man in a lorry, in pain and disorientated.

5. He was gay

Jay had a normal childhood just like anybody else living in a small village in Cameroon. But at the age of 15, when he realised he was gay, life became extremely difficult.

Jay knew that he would face violence if anyone found out he was gay. As a teenager he was considered abnormal and, at the age of 19, it got worse when he refused to take a wife.

He moved to a city and discovered an underground gay community who used fake names. He was sitting at a bar when he was arrested at random by police looking for a gay man they could torture.

Over five days, policemen burnt him with cigarettes, beat him until he could barely breathe and sexually abused him. When years later he was again threatened with arrest for his relationship with a man, Jay was forced to flee Cameroon.

Jay struggles to remember his past and journey to the UK, where he eventually arrived with the help of others.

6. He spoke to the media about a crime

Image by Tim Parkinson

Thamer had built a good life for himself and his four children in Syria. The collapse came when protests against the government started.

Thamer discovered a refrigerated lorry full of corpses – the aftermath of a massacre. He counted 83 dead and informed a journalist from Reuters.

Government security forces responded by arresting and torturing Thamer and every other man in the area between the ages of 16 and 60. Thamer was singled out as they wanted him to sign a statement that the bodies he found had been killed by criminals.

Thamer was told that his name was on a list of 60 people that the government intended to kill. A friend who was also on the list was shot by a sniper. With no choice but to flee Syria with his wife and children, Thamer eventually made it to safety in the UK. 

7. She spoke out against sexual violence

Faith worked at a charity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which supported, and advocated for the rights of, street children and rape victims.

On one occasion she organised an anti-rape protest where participants denounced the lack of action by the government to stop sexual violence. The next morning policemen came to her house and took her husband outside – this was to be the last time she saw him. They beat her children and raped her niece in front of them, before imprisoning her where she was raped and beaten repeatedly.

Faith was imprisoned twice more and left with no choice but to flee her home for safety in the UK.

8. She gave out medicine

Madu had a carefree childhood in Sri Lanka, enjoying dancing and visiting her Hindu temple. However, her life changed when she was drafted into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – often called the Tamil Tigers – at the age of 20.

Despite her mother begging for her release many times, Madu was sent to work with doctors and nurses in some of the areas where the fiercest fighting was taking place. On her release after five years, she formally trained as a nurse and enjoyed working in her local hospital for almost ten years. But this wasn’t to last.

One day Madu was stopped at an LTTE checkpoint, threatened and made to give them medicine. Following a raid by security forces on the LTTE, the drugs were traced back to her and days later she was imprisoned by government officials.

Her captors kept her in a filthy dark cell and, during frequent interrogations, beat her, put cigarettes out on her and raped her.

Her sister paid a bribe for Madu’s release after two months and, as her life was in danger, another sister paid for Madu’s travel to the UK. She arrived traumatised, bearing the injuries of her torture weeks earlier and pregnant as a result of the rapes.

9. He wrote about women’s rights

Iranian Arman was a professional writer with his own business and happily married to his wife for 12 years. He was in a bookshop with friends when he was arrested for writing articles in support of women’s rights.

Arman believed that no man had the right to marry several women or to physically abuse his wife. For this he was branded a traitor to his country, imprisoned and tortured. He spent four months in solitary confinement, whilst being tortured physically and psychologically.

When he was finally released, Arman was under constant surveillance and lived in fear of being arrested again. The threat to his safety was so bad he had to leave his wife and flee to the UK.

10. She gave someone a lift

Camille was a successful businesswoman with a happy family in Uganda. Until one day she offered a friend of a friend a lift on the way back from a business trip to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). She had no idea he was a wanted rebel.

The Ugandan police would not believe that Camille had never been involved with any rebel groups or political activities. They tortured her physically, mentally and sexually, and in one session she was taken to a room full of dead bodies and told she would face the same fate.

Camille managed to escape after 15 months in detention and fled to the UK, five thousand miles away from her husband and two children. She is still wanted in Uganda.

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