Treatment centre for torture victims marks 30th anniversary

Perico Rodriguez at Freedom from Torture (in the healing garden at the centre). Picture: Polly Hanco

Perico Rodriguez at Freedom from Torture (in the healing garden at the centre). Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Six days after a military coup saw the overthrow of the 1976 Argentinian government, police under the new dictatorship arrived at the home of Perico Rodriguez.

A town clerk in Patagonia, he was hauled off in front of his children and taken to a police station.

His crime was being a socialist, his punishment was near-death.

“They would tie my hands behind my back and force my head into a bucket of water,” Mr Rodriguez recalls.

“They gave me electric shocks, and would beat me. Even during a journey to another prison they chained us to the floor of the plane and beat us. These people were professional. They would torture us, and then have tea and a chat about fishing or their families and then they would start again. It was a terrifying experience of near-death.”

It was only after writing to a pair of English hitch-hikers he and his wife picked up a year before that news of his plight reached London. The UK government granted him asylum after three years in prison.

Now 71, he works for Freedom from Torture – a charity that has helped more than 50,000 torture victims from across the world.

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The only UK-based human rights organisation dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of torture survivors, it is this year marking its 30-year anniversary.

Until recently, the organisation was based in Grafton Road, Kentish Town, and the centre saw thousands of victims of rape, electrocution, branding and beatings from across the world come to the area to seek therapy.

Speaking from its new £5million purpose-built centre in Islington, Mr Rodriguez says protection for torture victims “is now worse than when I arrived in the UK”.

He said: “UK immigration officers aren’t very welcoming for those seeking asylum. There’s a policy of deep suspicion: that they’re liars; that they’re just coming for benefits. It’s just not true and ultimately means victims aren’t protected.”

Susan Munroe, chief executive of the charity, added: “Victims arrive with the expectation that because the UK is seen as a civilised country they will be given protection. But they soon find that’s not the case and they they are often put back into detention, re-traumatising them. It needs to stop.”

Last week, the chief inspector of prisons echoed these calls. Nick Hardwick told The Times it was “uncomfortable” that in the year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, “people are being detained on the say-so of a politician or a civil servant”. It comes as 2013 saw more than 50million refugees, asylum seekers or otherwise displaced persons in the world – the highest since the Second World War. The same year saw the charity take on 1,251 torture survivors, mostly from Sri Lanka and Iran.

Ms Munroe said: “The political will to help asylum seekers just isn’t there at the moment. That needs to change.”