Documenting Torture: Doctors Search For New Ways To Gather Evidence : Parallels Holding torturers to account requires evidence, the kind that doctors are learning to compile from countries at war, like Syria. But there are many challenges.

Documenting Torture: Doctors Search For New Ways To Gather Evidence

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People who are determined to bring human rights violators to justice around the world face a tough challenge finding real evidence. Doctors are among those trying to solve this problem. And NPR's Peter Kenyon met some in Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: When it comes to senseless violence and extreme human rights violations, Syria dominates the discussion, in part because modern technology provides Internet glimpses of atrocities almost in real time.


KENYON: This activist YouTube video from November shows a rocket attack on a hospital in Idlib province. Ziad Mhirsi, with Physicians for Human Rights, says these deeply moving videos make for powerful attention-getting advocacy. But they don't do much to actually hold people accountable.

ZIAD MHIRSI: Yes. I mean, it creates visibility. You could do it for advocacy purposes. But if you want justice, you have to think judiciary system. You have to think collection of evidence, chain of custody. There is a whole process.

KENYON: And that's the surprising good news. There is a process. And it's been gaining ground. Take torture - for more than a decade, doctors have had a manual approved by U.N. called the Istanbul Protocol. They use it to document injuries in such fine forensic detail that it can serve in court as corroborating evidence of torture.

Even in a scene of daily carnage like Aleppo, neurosurgeon Rami Kazali says when he treats people who say they were tortured by Syrian prison guards or by the Islamic State, his team carefully follows the protocol. Kazali risked his life to come to Istanbul for a workshop this month on how to teach other doctors these same techniques. One point he makes is that it's not always easy to convince patients that the painstaking process is worthwhile.

RAMI KAZALI: Some of them, because they don't have trust anymore (laughter) in the international community, they say, no, we don't need this. But when we explain that it could be for our country, for our courts in the future, they said yes because the idea is excellent actually.

KENYON: Here's how it can help. Let's say someone confesses to a crime under torture. In the past, it would just be their word against that of the police in front of a judge. But now doctors guided by the Istanbul Protocol can support the victim's story with forensic evidence. What type of knife made this cut - serrated, single-edged? Was it made by a left or right-handed person? From above or below? Kazali says all these details matter.

KAZALI: So we document everything. We make medical evaluation and psychological evaluation. So we are now, I think, we are experts in documenting cases who were under torture or inhumanitarian (ph) behaviors against them.

KENYON: But what if you're not in a war zone, just in a country where prisoners are routinely tortured? Forensic physician Rusudan Beriashvilli has experience with that in post-Soviet states. And she says it's more or less the same with governments in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America. They don't like it when doctors push for human rights. But a patient, relentless approach can slowly win adherence even in stubborn bureaucracies.

RUSUDAN BERIASHVILLI: So it's up to the professionals to build capacity, to know how to do best their work. This is really the process that brings very much important changes.

KENYON: But while these advocates are raising the standards, raging conflicts are lowering them. Physicians for Human Rights program director Widney Brown looks around and sees hospitals being shelled in Yemen, doctors kidnapped in Libya, patients killed in their hospital beds in South Sudan. And she worries that years of work raising legal standards could be undermined by the conflict in Syria.

WIDNEY BROWN: More than any place else, you just have an absolute shredding of those norms. And what it's going to take to recover and how damaged those norms are is a huge question for us.

KENYON: However bad it may get, the doctors here say they'll keep pushing back against torture and cruelty, one clinic, one victim at a time. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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