Civil Action

Civil Action

July 5, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
Reprinted in human rights periodical Article 2, Hong Kong

In Sri Lanka, victims of police torture are harassed, intimidated and even killed for speaking out against their tormentors. But a new witness protection bill may make walking the legal path a little safer.

Caught on a rare tea break, Father Nandana Manatunga bats at the ‘tsunami’ flies that whirl around his head and ponders a Sri Lankan newpaper headline: “Witness protection bill boost to human rights”. You get the feeling he’d like to be batting at something – or someone – else.

Manatunga and his small team at the  Kandy Human Rights Office are preparing for a  biannual “victims’ get-together”, a mix of Buddhists and Christians, ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil, refugees from sexual abuse and police brutality – far from the conflict-ridden north of the country. Because many of the party-goers are youngsters, presents are being wrapped in brown envelopes: Mickey Mouse mugs, bright pink photo frames swaddled in hearts, small plastic flashlights. Tomorrow, the gifts’ new owners will be distracted from the fact that they are in hiding, many taking a range of powerful people to court.

The violent three-decade conflict waged between the Tamil separatists and the government probably claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 people but, as Manatunga will tell you, it has also wrought damage in less direct ways. Decades of emergency rule have allowed the military and the police force to run rampant, corruption and intimidation becoming the order of the day for Tamils and Sinhalese alike. With the war declared over, rebuilding Sri Lankan society is going to be as much about fixing a broken rule of law as reconstructing schools and hospitals.

The witness-protection bill proposed in parliament for the first time last June is a start, suggesting the country will take seriously the protection and care of people who are waging human rights cases, such as those against overzealous police interrogators. Until now, such victims have been largely on their own, on the fringes of Sri Lankan life, scuttling to and from court appearances like frightened birds and assisted only by small NGOs. With corruption rife in the police force and the courts, they know that filing a suit against the wrong person guarantees years of intimidation and harassment and, now more frequently, death.

Anjana Fernando, a small, sad-eyed boy of 12, is one of those taking part in the centre’s festivities. Five years ago, his Sinhalese family decided to follow through with a list of complaints against their local police station, despite constant harassment. One evening,  more than 30 police officers descended on the Fernando home and Anjana was punched in the head and stomach. His father, Sugath, was knocked unconscious and his mother, Sandamali, had her nose and jaw fractured, before they were both thrown in jail. They had repeatedly asked for protection. Months later, last September, Anjana’s father was shot through the head by masked gunmen as the two sat together in the cab of the parked family lorry.

The boy doesn’t speak much anymore but his mother and older sister are full of fight, investing their anger in a legal case, while the family is being supported and hidden by a network of small NGOs.  Both children are finding life in hiding tough and they have been out of school for months. “My husband fought for justice and he was killed by cowards,” says Sandamali grimly, at a safe house.  “On behalf of him I will fight and if I die, my daughter will take it up.” Kalpani, 17, nods her assent. Then Anjana pipes up: “Then me,” he says.

But the damage is not only being seen on a personal level: the court system itself seems to be grinding to a halt. Crime levels in Sri Lanka aren’t lowering but the rate of complaints being filed with the authorities is and only about 4 per cent of those are successfully prosecuted. Sri Lankan human rights lawyer Basil Fernando (no relation), director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, links this directly to the lack of protection. “No justice system can function when complainants and witnesses don’t want to pursue their complaints,” he  says.  “Victims [of police torture] and their supporters are constantly told by police, ‘Don’t strike your head against a stone – no one can do us any harm’. It’s a catch-me-if-you-can mentality.”

“In Sri Lanka, if you see a person get run over in the street and the culprit gets away, you don’t get involved,” says Father Terence Fernando (also no relation), a dapper, tenacious Sinhalese priest from the south. “If the person in the car was a VIP you could be harassed, or your life could be in danger.”

At the Kandy party, victims and their relatives talk about the mistrust in society  and of neighbourhoods turned against them by the police. It’s not that people don’t want to help,  says Mary Allen, the wife of a torture victim, but just not in cases where they have to give evidence, go to the police station !or go through the courts. “If there is a funeral or something everyone will come together,” she says.

Even the lawyers in Sri Lanka need protection: both the men representing the Fernandos have received death threats and narrowly escaped serious injury or death:   J.C. Weliamuna was saved when one of two grenades thrown into his house didn’t explode  and  Amitha  Ariyaratne and his wife had been out of their home office for just a few minutes when it was burned down, in February, reducing every one of his case files to ash.

The witness protection bill was announced with much fanfare – and much was made of it in Sri Lanka’s report for the UN’s Universal Periodic Review last summer – but it seems to have sunk without trace since.  Many local human rights  activists have pegged it as a weak attempt to ease international pressure. One journalist for a local newspaper, in hiding himself at the time, was convinced that it wouldn’t be passed while the civil war lasted: “In the name of war the government can take anyone into custody right now and do anything to them; torture them, detain them, and this kind !of bill would just get in their way.”
With war apparently over, it will be interesting to see whether the bill is resurrected.

Basil Fernando has his doubts. “I think there’s even less likelihood of it passing now because people are demanding enquiries into the actions of the military over the past few months,” he says.  “Its professionalism is at stake and the government’s survival depends on it. It won’t want to make enquiries easier.” Whatever the bill’s fate, human rights groups have welcomed the debate that it has fostered.

Lalith Rajapakse and his grandfather were given a form of police protection after the teenager was tortured into a coma in a jailhouse in 2002 and chose to press charges. The policemen assigned to look after them just ate, slept and drank, remembers Rajapakse, now a gangly, intrepid 24-year-old. The memory, unbelievably, makes him laugh. “They would follow me to the toilet … but when I went out of the house, they would stay behind. In the end, we couldn’t afford to feed them, so we asked them to leave.”

Rajapakse has spent the  seven years of his trial !in hiding with  Manatunga’s programme but while visiting his home last year, towards the end of the case, he saw men with guns creeping around his house at night.
“I hid, jumped over a wall and ran to a relative’s house,” he remembers. “I haven’t gone back since. Recently, during a court case, the police admitted it was them coming to get me.” Rajapakse and his grandfather repeatedly turned down large, out-of-court offers of compensation from those involved – a form of bribery – and his grandfather was given a human rights award a few years ago for his courage.

In Negombo, a beach town not far from Sri Lanka’s capital,  Colombo, Brito Fernando (also no relation) considers bribery his biggest  obstacle. The organisation he runs, Right to Life, was set up a !few years ago to give legal support in human rights cases and Fernando is tired of throwing his support behind a victim only to have them back down from the case part of the way through.
“Many different forces start putting up pressure to settle, offering money, even sometimes bringing in [the support of] well-respected people in the area, like the MPs,” he  says wearily. “In cases involving police, the officers start going everywhere saying, ‘Oh, I did something wrong but I’m ready to pay because I’m going to lose my pension, my job and my whole family’. Sometimes they cry too and this builds up pressure.”

Over the years, the small team at the Kandy Human Rights Office has fine-tuned a system of legal help, trauma  counselling, security and education, but just as important, say those it helps, is the atmosphere of care. “The people here are the ones I’m closest to now,” says Chamila Bandara, 22, who lost the use !of his left arm after a particularly violent session in an interrogation room when he was 16. He had been accused, falsely, of stealing a water pump and he got to take his case before a  UN human rights committee in Geneva in 2003. “My sisters have been placed in a convent, where I can’t see them, and my mother’s in another province for safety. You can’t really make friends in hiding because you’re always frightened but here they know me well.” But being a small operation, there is a limit to how many people it can help.

Few victims of abuse in Sri Lanka recognise trauma, or know how to handle it.  Sister Mabel Rodrigo is a counsellor who works with minors such as  Rajapakse and  Bandara and has seen the damage first-hand. “Torture victims have a lot of anger towards the perpetrators. This anger is energy and that has to be  channelled in a very positive way,” she says. “If it isn’t, then the person will become bitter and want to take revenge and may even sink to killing people. They will become sociopathic.”

Sr Mabel Rodrigo

She says in the Kandy Hospital’s  psychiatric ward there exists a good system which combines  science with vocational training. If this kind of programme could be expanded and combined with protection, she says, things would start to improve. The law can help, she adds; actually winning a court case does untold good to any victim of crime. There is, though, a long hard road to travel to get that far. After a six-year battle,  Rajapakse lost his case last October and has had to appeal.  Rodrigo says she finds it frustrating to have made progress with a patient only to have them return from court every eight months with their wounds reopened. “Even after six years they are expected to remember every detail: who hit them where, what they were wearing,” Rodrigo says. “It makes my job very difficult.”

For other witnesses, the idea of being tied to a court case for half a decade is enough to make them look the other way; and so silence prevails.

The debate has been a significant turning point in this small island society but even if the bill is reborn, there are many issues that need addressing before victims will trust a state-run system with their safety and before the rebuilding can start !in earnest.
Still, as more Sri Lankans begin to understand their rights, more are choosing to speak out and brave the legal path. Thanks to those supporting them from the wings, they stand a chance of holding out until the verdict is given.

Brito Fernando and his colleagues talk powerfully of their dreams for a stronger civil movement at home; Manatunga believes  only a strong, legitimate rule of law will bring change;  Kalpani Fernando  wants to become a human rights lawyer and has clear ideas on the society she wants to help build. “First, I want to find out who did this to my father, then I want to show them that I can live in front of them,” she declares, her chin held high. “Only civil society can change the system.”

Inside Burma

Inside Burma

June 26, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
Reprinted in the Burma Digest, and Euro-Burma

Fred Taino is a Burmese-speaking human rights defender who regularly visits Burma. Following a recent trip to Burma’s biggest city, Yangon, he describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, how locals are fighting repression, human rights abuses and how tourists have deserted the country.

Yangon looks different after Nargis. About 70% of the big trees collapsed so the view of the city has changed; much more is revealed. The tragedy is remarkable for the fact that many either lost their entire families in the cyclone, or they lost no one. I haven’t come across anyone who just lost an uncle or grandfather because in the places that were hit nearly everyone was swept out to sea and drowned. I asked about one monastery I have stayed in and was told that two of the monks had lost relatives, and for both it was their entire extended families. One man’s entire village was wiped off the map.

The psychological damage of this is enormous but there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to come to terms with it at all on a national scale. The cyclone caused many business- or middle-class families from the damaged areas to move into the cities. This year those who can afford it have moved to Yangon for the rainy season.

These days more mobile phones are being used and they’re just starting to introduce pre-paid cards, which will mean that access to people is a bit less restricted. But despite some differences – more overseas employment shops and more internet cafés – the living conditions remain stagnant. In the rainy season there’s pretty much no electricity from local grids (there’s no national grid) and almost every business has a generator running. Many households do without. There are huge problems with the water supply too; you only get water when the power comes on and in the dry season the pipes often dry out.

It doesn’t look like imprisoning Aung San Suu Kyi is going to generate protests inside the country; she was barely discussed, not like the way she used to be. There is great respect and concern for the monks in jail from last year’s protests, but again, it rarely comes up. From the conversations I had and those I listened in on, people are much more concerned with the basics, like the cost of food and the fact that more products are turning up with toxins in them. People were contracting serious illnesses this spring from mouldy, dried chilli.

In terms of the political situation the Burmese have an expression – hpyit thaloe nay – it basically means: “You just have to live with it.” People ask why should they spend their time and energy thinking about something when they can’t tell what’s true anymore? After fifty years this is how they survive psychologically.

Aung San Suu Kyi embodied expectations for change, but by systematically destroying her party and locking her away, the regime has managed to bring them down. It may still be there, deep inside people, but now it’s like a sadness more than anything else.

In internet cafés the computers have proxy programs to beat the censors and almost all staff members have numbers committed to memory. I went to one café and found that Yahoo was blocked but the attendant was able to help me access it pretty quickly by trying a few different proxy addresses. Those people know an incredible amount about the technology out there out of necessity. But they probably wouldn’t help me access a controversial site, such as Human Rights Watch, and I thought it dangerous to try. Most users wouldn’t think to anyway; they are like net café customers everywhere: 15 to 20 year olds playing computer games and downloading rock music from South Korea. The consequences of anything else have been made all too clear to them.

Still, the technological capabilities of the police force are limited, often in a ridiculous way. Police reports tend to be vague about exactly what they find in a supposed dissident’s possession. If a hard drive is recovered, the contents are not usually mentioned; this is because they don’t know what they’re dealing with, and because they don’t need to detail anything for a charge to be made.

It’s still a surveillance culture in the sense of insulation. People watch what one another are doing.

The economy has just stalled. The current figure on tourism is a quarter of a million people, and most of those are from neighbouring countries. Only 90,000 came from further afield on tourist visas this financial year. For a country of this size and compared to the expectations they had in the nineties, it’s very low – they were talking about half a million then, and this year projecting millions. There were five-star hotels built and never completed in Yangon. Some are concrete shells and some have been converted into private hospitals, which is pretty much the only boom area, and it’s thanks to Chinese and South Korean expat business travellers.

But there’s no other new development. All state funds were poured into this new national capital of ostentatious buildings and highways with no cars on them. The one from the Yangon airport to Naypyidaw is about to be officially opened. One driver I talked to said he’d never seen a road like it in his life.

The private news journals can’t say anything about the economic downturn directly, though you can sometimes read between the lines. Instead they give regular announcements of new committees being formed to solve every problem under the sun.

On the plane out I sat next to a consultant dealing with the mortality rates of pregnant women, who told me that not only is Burma the worst place for this in South East Asia, but it doesn’t even come close to somewhere like Cambodia. The statistics are similar she says – about three to four hundred deaths per 100,000 births in both countries – yet though she thinks this is true in Cambodia the anecdotal evidence in Burma says otherwise. In interviews in Cambodian villages she’ll hear of maybe one woman who died in childbirth in a year, in one village in Burma there were 14.

Tourists are free to travel to most places except those frontier areas under ceasefire arrangements such as parts of the Shan State, or economically sensitive areas like the ruby mines. Wherever you go outside of the main tourist areas though, be expected to be questioned by officials – usually three or four representing different government agencies. They don’t seem to trust each other.

• Fred Taino was interviewed by journalist Jo Baker.

Can Sri Lanka's Civil Society Be Rebuilt?

Can Sri Lanka

May 20, 2009, Asia Sentinel, Hong Kong

Murders and assaults allegedly perpetrated by an increasingly authoritarian government make it look unlikely.

With the rebel Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran finally dead and the military declaring total victory after 26 years of war, Sri Lanka’s traumatized citizens are hoping that their society can finally be regenerated. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a Tuesday speech in Parliament, promised the formerly Tiger-controlled areas would be reconstructed and that the rights of Tamils would be respected and protected.

Probably 100,000 of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people have been killed since the war began in 1983, a pace that picked up considerably in the past few weeks as the army closed in on the Tiger rebels, blasting civilian and refugee areas with artillery. Huge numbers of people were driven from their homes. Healing this nation in one of the world’s bitterest civil wars seems almost impossible, particularly because, thanks to decades of emergency rule in which the military and the police force have learned to run rampant with breathtaking impunity, the rule of law is a broken thing, for Tamils and Sinhalese alike.

The fact is that the government has used the war to brutalize citizens far from the war zone well beyond any reasonable limit. As many recent assaults and assassinations have shown, the simple act of just taking someone high profile to court here, let alone getting involved in the internecine civil conflict, tends to be a deadly gamble. Last September, for instance, businessman Sugath Nishanta Fernando was shot dead by masked men on a motorbike as he sat next to his 12-year-old son in the family lorry. His death capped a five-year attempt to take various police officers to court for abuses that started with assault and extortion, and ran through the criminal spectrum, from harassment, bribery and fabricated charges, to attempted murder.

The family had often asked for protection, including the time over 30 officers descended on the family home, beat its four members (two of them children) and dragged three into jail. Fernando’s wife Sandamali notes that they were eventually given a police guard — at her husband’s funeral.

Fernando’s wife and teenage daughter have taken fierce refuge in the legal case, and as a result they still run the risk of being killed. The family is being supported and hidden by a network of small NGOs and the children, at the time of the interview, had been out of school for months.

“We don’t have an income so we are relying on help from these organizations,” explains Kalpani Fernando, 17. “We are worried about being killed, but we are also concerned that nothing has been done to find my father’s killers. If we have proper laws to protect witnesses it would be alright. Then, if something happens to me the DIG (Deputy Inspector General) should be responsible. Then the situation could change.”

Sugath Fernando joins a number of people assassinated or ‘disappeared’ for their attempts to root out corruption. In 2004, 39-year-old Gerald Perrera, taking a groundbreaking case against police for torture and illegal arrest, was shot days before his final testimony; in January the prominent anti-establishment newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunge was also shot, and as he predicted in a letter released posthumously (see Asia Sentinel, xmmx) , no prosecutions have been made; Stephen Sunthararaj, who works at the Centre for Human Rights Development in Colombo, was abducted by men in Special Task Force uniforms on May 7 and has not been heard from since.

Nor does it take a full scale assault on the powers-that-be to put a civilian at risk. “In Sri Lanka if you see a person get run over in the street and the culprit gets away, you don’t get involved,” says Father Terence Fernando (no relation), a Sinhalese priest from the south. “If the person in the car was a VIP you could be harassed, or your life could be in danger.” In short, it is safer to look the other way.

For the first time, in June 2008 a witness protection bill was proposed in parliament for the first time. According to Sri Lanka’s disaster management and human rights minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Assistance and Protection to Victims and Witnesses of Crime Bill would finally fulfill some of its duties under the international human rights instruments it has ratified.

If used effectively, legal and human rights group believe such a program could make big changes in a country known for its corruption, its use of torture in custody and the harassment by police of those who file against them for abuse.

“No justice system can function when complainants and witnesses do not want to pursue their complaints,” says Basil Fernando, a Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Hong Kong. “Torture victims and their supporters are constantly told by police ‘do no strike your head against a stone. No one can do us any harm’. It’s a catch-me-if-you-can mentality.”

But despite the bill’s arrival in parliament last June with just minor changes recommended by the Supreme Court, and despite much being made of it at Sri Lanka’s report for the UN’s Universal Periodic Review last summer, there has been little more heard on the issue officially. The country was removed from the UN Human Rights Council in 2008 and many in the local human rights community have labeled the bill a weak attempt to ease international pressure. One journalist for a local newspaper, in hiding himself at the time, was convinced that it wouldn’t be passed while civil war was in play. “In the name of war the government can take anyone into custody right now and do anything to them; torture them, detain them, and this kind of bill would just get in their way.”” he says of the violent three-decade conflict waged between Tamil separatists and the government.

Now that war has been declared over it will be interesting to see if the government honors the bill. Basil Fernando is doubtful. “I think there’s even less likelihood of it passing now because people are demanding enquiries into the actions of the military over the last few months,” he says. “Its professionalism is at stake, and the government’s survival depends on it. It will not want to make enquiries easier. ”

Even should the bill be passed, human rights groups wonder if it can work on a practical level; echoing the skepticism that most victims already feel for the authorities. Father Nandana Manatunga, who runs one of the country’s only witness refuges, the Kandy Human Rights Office, believes that it would have to be an independent institution: “We can’t trust any of these forces, especially when it comes to police torture cases. It’s absurd to ask protection from the perpetrators – the police here act as one group.”

Lalith Rajapakse and his grandfather were given a form of police protection after the teenager was tortured into a coma in a jailhouse in 2002 and chose to press charges. The policemen just ate, slept and drank, he remembers, now a gangly 24-year-old. “They would follow me to the toilet… but when I would go out of the house, they would stay behind! In the end we couldn’t afford to feed them, so we asked them to leave”. Lalith spent the eight years of his trial in hiding with Father Nandana’s program, and while visiting his home last year towards the end of the case, he saw men with guns creeping around his house at night. In a recent court case officers were forced to admit that it was them. At the Kandy Human Rights Office there are many similar tales being shared.

The debate on the responsibility for protection is a significant turning point in this small island society, but there are many issues to address before victims will trust a country-run system with their safety. Still, as more Sri Lankans begin to understand their rights, more are choosing to speak out and brave the legal path. Thanks to those supporting them from the wings they stand a chance of holding out until the verdict.

In the midst of her ordeal 17-year-old Kalpani Fernando, Sugath’s daughter, has decided to become a human rights lawyer and she holds clear ideas on the society she wants to help build: “First I want to find out who did this to my father, then I want to show them that I can live in front of them,” she says. “Only civil society can change the system.”

Jo Baker is a Hong Kong based journalist and programme coordinator for the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Comments (1)add


First step
written by Mao , May 21, 2009

With the elimination of the terrorist threat, Sri Lanka has taken the first step in the journey to a Civil society. The physical battle has been won, but even greater battle for the minds is just beginning. The Sinhalese Buddhist Chauvinism has to be curbed. Tamil must be urged to accept their place as equal citizens. Political compromise must be made, and hopefully the Rajiv blueprint for Tamil autonomy can be brush-up and implemented.

'It was a whole traumatised society'

May 21, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
May 29, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

International criminal lawyer Carla Ferstman works for human rights organisation Redress. She talks about her experience of seeking justice for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the rights of torture victims, and why she prefers not to talk about work at weddings.

I was a criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver for two and a half years after graduation and I was looking for a little bit of a diversion, and a friend of mine told me they were looking for prosecutors to go work in Rwanda. I went out in ‘95 with the UN High Commission for Human Rights without any international experience. I’m from Montreal and they were looking for criminal lawyers that spoke English and French, but had no associations with France, which was a Rwandan preference then for political reasons. I expected to go for three months and ended up being there for two years.

When I was there the genocide had ended a year earlier, but that size of genocide in a country that tiny – you really saw the remnants. You saw the physical destruction of houses, bullet holes, but you also saw the trauma of the average person. It’s an obvious but strange thing to experience – a whole traumatized society. There’s just a profound sadness. There, either you survived and 15 members of your family didn’t or you survived and your brother is in prison for killing 15 people. Definitely people were hostile. The UN’s role in Rwanda was so suspect, and the average Rwandan couldn’t make a distinction between the UN military forces who weren’t able to intervene during the genocide, and the civilian people who came afterwards. To a certain extent it was very rewarding, working with local lawyers and prosecutors to build something from scratch, but it was also very demoralizing and you came across cases in which you saw no hope whatsoever. I’m still working on Rwanda today, and tension between the communities there is still very high.

Part of my experience was helping with the process of reburial for mass graves.  I happened to have the only pickup truck in the area, so my pickup truck – with me driving – was used to transport these bodies for reburial.  It’s all very gruesome but you just do it. In terms of what I saw, you’re not really seeing bodies at that point, but remnants. It’s different, a little bit more removed. A lot of decompression took place after I left.

At Redress we’ve about ten lawyers in our office from all over, and we take up legal challenges for victims seeking justice, often for torture or related international crimes, like crimes against humanity. I’d say half are in the UK, refugees or British nationals tortured abroad and half are in countries across the world, where we work in coordination with local lawyers or NGOs. I probably travel a quarter or third of the time. This month I was in Canada for work, then herein Hong Kong, then I’m off to Cambodia next week for the trials, and I was supposed to go to Sudan in early December. That’s typical.

It’s hard to strike that balance. On one hand there’s a tendency, after having heard so many stories of torture, to have your notepad out saying, yeah next!  If you’re crying with the victims somehow, I’d almost say that’s less problematic than not being moved at all. We’re not psychologists but we’re more than lawyers because we can’t be part of a system that compartmentalizes these people into different boxes. It’s about your emotional capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes but also to be… helpful! It’s hard to explain. If you’re sharing the pain you’re not really helpful, but you need to understand the pain and not brush over details that are important to people.

I do get a deer-in-headlights look when I meet new people [outside of work]. At first, you can’t say what you do in four words, which is what’s expected, but if you go into more detail then all of a sudden people feel compelled to have a conversation about it, but may not be comfortable doing that. So you get the oh! And the long silence.

In a way our type of work has been in the media a lot so people have a preconceived idea about what I’m like, and also about the issues, depending on the newspaper that they read. Often you’re thought of as a total lefty, and very naïve, I don’t bother trying to change anyone’s mind usually. If I think a person is actually interested in my point of view then I’ll give it; if it’s more their spouting what they heard on Fox News or they just want a fight, then I won’t bother. Like this guy at a wedding once wanted to fight about Guantanamo, so I just went out and had a cigarette. I quite enjoy my friends who have nothing to do with my job.  They are receptive and interested, but their work and their lives and completely different, and I think it’s healthy.

One torture survivor, an incredibly intelligent guy, has been asking all the people that have helped him down the line how they got involved in these kinds of things and why they do it. He told me that no one really feels like they’re a missionary – like they’re doing anything extraordinary; they just feel like this is something they have to do and they do it. It’s not like I have this big cloud of sunshine pour on me.

Recently all this ‘war against terrorism’ business has come into conflict with the human rights world.  ‘Do-gooders’ are portrayed as the naive, unrealistic type that has completely lost touch with reality when it comes to fighting the problems that really matter, and in the media – or by those with agendas it’s now like there are polar opposites, a black and white debate. You need to realize that there are other valid points of view.

At Redress I like that we’re using the law. I don’t think we can change politics because it shifts according to the interests of others. One day it may be closer to us, but it can move away just as fast. I don’t see that we’ve made such an impact on advocacy to affect policy – I see more that we force things through certain pieces of litigation that then force responses, and have forced governments to be responsible for this and that. Obviously there are many other groups that have influenced public opinion, but in terms of what we as a small organization can achieve, it’s different.

Carla Ferstman is the director of Redress ( and was interviewed by Journalist Jo Baker.

Raising the Bar

Raising the Bar

May 18, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Jo Baker meets a lawyer who backed Pakistan’s rebel judiciary, and lost more than his freedom

People have given up all kinds of things for their country, but Pakistani lawyer Muneer Malik’s forfeit was both brutal and peculiar. The more predictable sacrifices had already been made – his family were harassed, his colleagues beaten and his freedom temporarily taken away – but in solitary confinement in Pakistan’s notorious Attock Fort last November, Malik’s jailers chose to deprive him of one more thing: working kidneys. Who exactly was behind his poisoning, whether it was deliberate and whether, as some people believe, it was a murder attempt, has yet to come to light.

Earlier that year the Pakistan courts had been in disarray. Cases for ‘disappeared’ persons were piling up, corruption scandals were rife and Supreme Court judges were growing uncomfortably close to the cabinet of General Pervez Musharraf. It was unhappiness that led Malik to leave his practice in 2006, and run for president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

“I thought that those were going to be defining years in terms of the democratic struggle in Pakistan,” he remembers, sitting in an office at the Hong Kong-based Asia Human Rights Commission this week, his hands gently folded in his lap and a slight American twang to his accent. He was in Hong Kong to pick up the commission’s third Human Rights Defender award. “Musharraf had made a set of rules that were tailor-made to advance the interests of the elite. It was time to for the Bar to reassert its independence and take up a pro-people stance on these issues. With someone like my predecessor [Malik Mohammad Qayyum] in the role – well – I wasn’t confident that would happen.”

Little did he know just how definitive the next year would prove. Not long into the lawyer’s new post, Musharraf summoned the nation’s Chief Justice, Iftekhar Mohammad Chaudhry – a proud, unpopular man with a penchant for pomp – and fired him. The two had worked closely in the past, but some of the judge’s recent rulings had ruffled the wrong feathers. Chaudhry, however, refused to go.  Malik and the other lawyers had often been at loggerheads with the Chief Justice, but at that moment, he says, the situation rose above character flaws. “There were these telling images on television,” says Malik, “The General in uniform, admonishing the Chief Justice in full court dress; the moment I saw those I knew that this was an assault on the judiciary, and whether I liked [Chaudhry] or not we had to take a very firm stance. History has had it that you can’t stand up against Generals in Pakistan – they will tighten the screws on you – but he did.”

The nation had paid little attention the last time Pakistan’s judges had been cowed by Musharraff, but with democracy sputtering out so visibly, Malik sensed a change. He was the first to get through to the Chief Justice under house arrest, by tracking down his wife’s cell phone number. “I told him to stay firm and that we would back him to the hilt,” he says. With the support of his bar colleagues, Malik shadowed Chaudhry’s court proceedings, calling press conferences at each step.

The following four months saw boycotts, protests and hunger strikes radiating out from high court houses across the country. Waves of suit-clad lawyers in somber ties would hit the baking tarmac for hours on end; non-essential court proceedings were stopped. “Hunger strikes were one weapon we could use effectively,” remembers Malik.  “We had two people in every Bar Association across Pakistan striking all day, every day. The object was to give as much as we could to the media, so that the people of Pakistan could understand what we were doing and why”. As more civilians joined the protests, Chaudhry fast became a symbol of Pakistan’s potential reform, and an empowered public began to take on the fight as its own.

Malik has vivid memories of the crackdowns; his house was peppered with gun fire one evening, his daughter narrowly escaping harm, and aggression on the streets would come from both uniformed police and military intelligence goons dressed as lawyers. Two lawyers were shot in Karachi. Malik and his peers survived a timed explosion set to greet them in Islamabad. Protests continued to ricochet across the country.

“You always hear of protestors attacking the police with bricks and stones, but this time it would be the police, with tear gas, baton charges, throwing rocks and bricks at protestors,” says Malik. “In one evening torch-lit procession, in one city in Punjab, the police came with small canisters – petrol.  They doused protestors. To this day there are lawyers scarred all over their faces. I happened to meet someone four months after, and his entire left arm reminded me of leprosy: the way his skin was, the burns and scars.”  But progress was being made. At the end of one 25-hour procession to the Lahore High Court, Malik remembers meeting judges who had waited for them all night, sleeping on mats in their chambers. One told him that the movement had finally given them the courage to step up.

At that point Malik wasn’t a total stranger to political protest. The student activism scene at home was quashed in the eighties (and stayed that way until the coalition government formed last month), but  he has fond memories of joining anti-war protests through San Francisco, where he studied. “We were all, hey, hey LBJ, how many people have you killed today?” he remembers, chuckling. Returning to Pakistan, under its various dictatorships, Malik found rebellion a little less overt. “The situation had never sharpened so much so as to result in street agitation, but in our minds, in our writings… in the seminars we’d hold and attend – it was low key opposition to authoritarian rule,” he says.

In a landmark move that summer, after five months, Chief Justice Chaudhry was reinstated by his own colleagues and Malik stepped down that October in a jubilant climate; Musharraf was under increasingly hostile fire from the public and potentially fair elections were on the cards. The feeling didn’t last. He was mid-air a few days later when the State of Emergency was called, and arrested not long after landing in Islamabad. “The order said, ‘You are likely to make speeches which will be inflammatory and create disorder’,” he recalls. “It didn’t say I had done so!” Nevertheless a jail transfer landed him in an isolation cell measuring five by eight feet, with little other than a concrete slab, and a toilet. “It reminded me of a scene in Ben Hur,” he says, grimly. “The window had iron grills that were not netted, and I had no blanket, so at night I lost sleep because of the mosquitoes and the shivering cold.  Food I received through slits in the door.”

This too is where the much disputed incident took place that saw Malik in a government hospital, fighting for his life after nearly a month in jail. Weak from a hunger strike and suffering various aches and pains, he asked for and was given pain relief, then sleeping pills. Then all he can remember are hazy, disjointed scenes of an ambulance and hospitals, as his kidneys shut down. He suffered chronic renal failure for which he still takes medication.

“Calling it a deliberate attempt on my life would be jumping the gun because I have no evidence, but they might have been trying to teach me a lesson, to break my will,” he concurs.  “My conditions were such that the medications that I received would have caused my kidneys to fail, in shock… It was text book.”

The experience fortified him. “Having come so close to kicking the bucket, the only way to go was up,” he notes wryly.  But others, he says, underwent more dramatic changes over the year. Chief Justice Chaudhry, who would once expect motorcades, 21 gun salutes and ‘would be miffed, personally, if an army lieutenant general would be driving a Mercedes and here he was in a Corolla’ has done a 180. “He’s been through the test of fire,” says Malik. “I think what he’s been through, with the way people have flocked, despite failings of his character, standing in line for hours under blazing sun waiting for him – he cannot be but a changed man. He knows now he was on the wrong side of the fence.”  And, having met the newest wave of political leaders, Malik has been pleasantly surprised with Nawaz Sharif, who just this week pulled out from his party’s hard-fought place in the coalition government to protest the delay in reinstating judges who resisted during the emergency.

Now for Malik it’s another day, another award. Picking up his Defender prize, for himself and his SCBA successor Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, before a flight to Korea to accept the 2008 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, Malik dedicated it to Pakistan’s low-paid younger lawyers, who he believes suffered the most hardship during the strike. “The backbone of this struggle has been the ones who still don’t have a vested interest in the system, who look forward to its reform – to honest independent fearless service. The expectations of the public have been changed, because of them,” he says. “I remember that bumper sticker that used to be on cars in America during the Vietnam War: ‘What if they gave a war and nobody came?’ Well if I’d given the call and they weren’t there to back me, then where would we be?”











Love is in the wear

Love is in the wear


South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, April 24, 2009
Architecture with a lived-in touch is winning hearts

When architect Bill Bensley was asked to design a hotel in Phuket not long after the tsunami, he found himself wanting to give it a deeper layer of meaning. That layer was found by his team of Thai and Indonesian designers at salvage auctions in the area, where they bought driftwood and other bits of wreckage wrought by the giant wave, and incorporated them into the hotel, Indigo Pearl. “We picked up a whole lot of materials and in various innovative ways reused them, in the structure, in sculptures,” he recalls. The hotel, which also uses a lot of old tin in tribute to the area’s tin mining history, has received rave reviews for its vision and its sensitivity.

Using architectural salvage like this is a great way to bring emotional resonance to a space. Though Asian consumers tend to love the look and smell of the brand spanking new, the virtue of an old door, scuffed floor tiles or a vintage piece of iron work is beginning to be understood – especially in a city like Hong Kong, where floor plans are cookie cutter and product brands are limited. Unlike antique ornamentation, salvage brings personality deeper into the fabric of your home.

Hong Kong artist Stanley Wong has explored the layers of personal meaning in materials by making installations out of refuse, but in Hong Kong bar and restaurants The Pawn and The Press Room he brought this philosophy into play as a designer. In the vintage club-style Pawn he used timber from old ship decks in floors and walls, and flattened out rice bags for wallpaper. “Of course, people here are not really used to it (but) there’s a more sentimental, sensational feeling,” he says.  “To me, salvaged materials not only provide a different look, but more important (are) the emotion and stories behind… and the sense of environmental friendliness”.

The environmental factor is key to the popularity of salvage among designers; the luxury market might be resilient to reuse but the green revolution has made the idea more marketable.  Raefer Wallis of A00 Architecture was responsible for shaping the look of young ‘carbon neutral’ hotel, URBN, in Shanghai (pictured above), founded by entrepreneurs Jules Kwan and Scott Barrack. “URBN is not about salvaged mahogany and old suitcases… it is about making the best use of available local resources,” stresses the designer, who with Kwan, spent days cycling around old expo sites and tiny shops on the hunt for resources to use in the building. A hefty dose of local character comes from the wall of battered leather suitcases stacked high in the hotel reception, and rooms are enveloped in brick and old mahogany from demolished hutongs. Most of the suitcases were barely recognizeable when they were first unearthed, he notes; they needed hours of cleaning and polishing.

Bringing these old materials into a home takes creativity as well as elbow grease. Jennifer Newton of Hong Kong-based interior design studio Newton Concepts, spends many a weekend sifting through old wood at reclamation yards, like the one near Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, and these find their way into her clients’ homes in various forms. “I use a lot of wood reclaimed from old railway sleepers in Bali and Java, and a lot of old oolong wood and iron wood used in shipyards and I’ll make it into table tops – coffee tables and dining tables – because it has so much character to it,” she explains. “You can also use big slate tiles as coffee tables, or reuse old Chinese windows either as windows or you can make them into mirrors.”

In one recent apartment redesign, Newton lined structural ceiling beams with worn elm panels from China, giving the home a strong earthy kick. But she advises against using old wood for flooring because each piece needs to be cut evenly, sanded down and treated for small holes. Flooring shops in western cities have such materials ready-prepared at a price, but she knows of no such option here.
In fact in this part of the world the road to good architectural salvage can be long and tiresome, though this journey itself brings a narrative to your interior. Designers speak of glamour-less trawls through wreckage yards and hours spent tracking down hole-in-the-wall stores in Beijing for a small pile of vintage tiles. Wallis finds his resources in little shops around Chinese demolition sites, where the former DVD or underwear-selling tenants have been replaced by salvage vendors in spaces “with a makeshift door and lock on the front, and maybe a hanging light bulb or two.” Kwan, thanks to a tip-off, found his suitcases in a dusty unnumbered warehouse outside of Shanghai.

In Hong Kong success can sometimes be had in the wood vendors along Wan Chai’s Lockhart Road, or in Cat Street shops in Sheung Wan, which stock smaller items such as wall sconces, light fitting and door knobs.  Newton has started to sell old pieces at her store on Elgin Street because of the gap in the market, though she has also sourced some wood through Mix Creation Ltd in Central (tel: 2307 0273). A few furniture vendors, such as David Ng’s Matchit ( on Star Street or Chen Mi Ji ( are good starting points for custom-made furniture pieces with age and character.

Character doesn’t come cheaply though. One Hong Kong designer impetuously shelled out HK$4,000 for a large plank of shipyard wood in a LockhartRroad shop; the piece is now mounted and spot-lit in his conference room, coveted by most of his clients, and according to him, worth it. Higher grade salvage, like teak from old houses in Indonesia or stained glass windows from churches in Europe, can command extremely high prices. However in Asia, at the source (mainly demolition sites) many pieces are in danger of being thrown away or chopped up, and bargains can be found.  “Typically they show up in the neighborhood where they are sourced,” notes Wallis. “Moving them any further isn’t worth it. Finding them requires a bike or scooter… or better yet walking. You miss these little places when trying to hunt them down with a car.”

For those that like to cheat, technology and cheap manual labour on the Mainland can add a century to a design scheme, courtesy of a good contractor.  “You say, I want this with a cracked lacquer screen and show them a picture,” says a designer at hospitality giant, Hirsch Bedner Associates. “They paint it, fracture it, repaint it and process, and when they’re done it looks 110 years older. You do get some strange looks when you first ask, though – the concept is not completely understood!” There are also DIY options: aged paint finisher can work wonders on mouldings.

However many designers can’t bring themselves to go faux. Alexi Robinson worked with top British designer Tom Dixon on Shoreditch House, one of London’s latest hipster members’ clubs, with a warehouse aesthetic that inspired the Pawn (and countless other interiors the world over). She has been hired by the Press Room Group to do a restaurant in Hong Kong. “Would I fake it? I don’t think I could; I believe in the honesty of a material,” she says.  “It might not be the most practical or economically sensible advice to homeowners because the technology for certain effects is now very convincing, but to build a narrative within the space, to create a feeling of true comfort I think you’ve got to believe in the authenticity of the materials you’re using.”

Stay Overnight in a Turkish Mansion

Stay Overnight in a Turkish Mansion

May 14, 2009, Time Magazine

“Make yourself at home” may be a refrain heard in guesthouses the world over, but it takes on new meaning when it comes from one of your host country’s wealthiest families — and when your temporary “home” is their mansion. The Buyukkusoglu family, who made their fortune in the automotive industry, converted their 48,400-sq-ft (4,500 sq m) modern manor house in Bodrum, Turkey, on the edge of the Aegean Sea into a 12-suite hotel, and in 2007 opened it to paying guests as the Casa Dell’Arte.

“We wanted the hotel to still feel like a house, and to be very social,” says owner Fatos Buyukkusoglu, who led the hotel’s design team and lives in a smaller house on the property. “We designed a lot of inner courtyards and spaces where guests can come together — at the dinner table, in the lounge or by the pool.” Meals are taken at a 14-seat dining table, on the terrace, or on various sculptural bits of lawn furniture, and each night guests gather by the fireplace in the reading room or on the sofa in the lounge.

The hotel is also a way for the family to share their vast contemporary Turkish art collection, which is regularly refreshed by their gallery in Istanbul. The walls are adorned with pieces by Turkish artists such as abstract masters Devrim Erbil and Adnan Coker, as well as works by international artists including Colombian sculptor and painter Fernando Botero. And next door is the Casa Dell’Arte Art Village, an equally chic 38-suite hotel with in-house artists who run free painting and sculpture workshops for guests — just in case looking at all that great art inspires you to create some of your own.

Basic Instincts

Basic Instincts

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, March 27, 2009

Keeping it simple is the order of the day as people seek comfort in uncertain times

The opening of high-end serviced apartments in Sheung Wan last month saw a rare aesthetic for Hong Kong: the Yin’s 42 studios offer glimpses of brickwork, flashes of exposed piping, and baths carved out of stone blocks. This kind of warehouse-hip has been run-of-the-mill in other cities for years, yet in Hong Kong it has always struggled, and usually drowned, under heaps of suede, crystal and polished wood. Still, Philip Liao of design firm Liao and Partners thought that now might be the time to give it a go – albeit with a sanitized and slightly Zen-like twist. “I just read in a fashion magazine that power pin stripes and opulence are a little out,” he laughs. “This raw, more honest kind of living is not timed for this ‘tsunami’ but tastes are changing. Even very well paid young execs don’t necessarily want to live in a palace any more”.

Could the economic crisis have Hong Kong design paring down, aesthetically? The past fifteen years here have been a parade of unrestrained decadence: in the textures and the technology we’ve been choosing for our homes, and in the restaurants and bars we hang out in. But it appears that for some people these choices are either no longer sustainable or are being seen as less tasteful, and designers have started to respond to a different mindset. If you’ve got it, flaunt it? Not so much anymore.
“If you have it right now, probably you don’t want to show it – and if you had it, you don’t want to be reminded that you had it,” wryly observes Hernan Zanghellini, of the Hong Kong-based Zanghellini Holt Architects. “It’ll be about the simple pleasures for the next few years.”

But think modest, not minimalist. It is actually more expensive to do a flat ceiling, a high-gloss surface or a seamless piece of furniture than it is to produce something ornate. “Clients say it’s harder to make simple designs industrially because it’s harder to get the details right,” concurs Hong Kong-based product designer Danny Fang. “Flaws show up more clearly.” So although people may feel that simpler surroundings have more virtue, trends are unlikely to go too bare. What the crunch might do, says Fang, is make people more picky about quality, and less fond of disposable products; design buffs will be looking for longevity.

“When you have troubles it’s the old friend you turn to, not the trendy person you met two days ago,” opines Zanghellini, who sees us heading towards old, familiar comforts. This means more natural wood and more burnished metals – highly polished chrome and steel will be out, bronze and copper will be in – but still all in the spirit of temperance. The new collection from Hong Kong design brand Ovo reflects the move towards a simpler life: OVO Eszentials: eminent sensation will combine warm, cheering colour with smooth, sculptural forms. “When the economy is good, when people have a lot of spare money to spent, they may look for something a bit showier,” says directo Ed Ng “however [now], they may relax a bit on some of the fine details and materials.”

This paring down is already a common thread for cosmopolitan hubs, at home and at play. As one London design writer put it in a recent barometer-style table: while restaurants, pre-crunch, meant “angry telly (TV) chefs, faux-French food, rising cloches, Michelin stars, great expense”, post-crunch will bring “wood burning ovens, refectory tables and no reservations”.

In Hong Kong this has already happened, as character-heavy cubbies are replacing illusions of grandeur. English pub-style venues have mushroomed, with their polished woods and comforting leather. The Press Room restaurant won designer and artist Stanley Wong a Design for Asia Silver award last year for its classic combination of warm brick, vintage tile and wood, and restaurants like Zanghelini & Holt’s new BLT in Ocean Terminal are walking a line between distinguished and homey. The hodgepodge of used and ‘faux-used’ furniture, retro light fittings and aged wood at The Pawn in Wanchai, also by Stanley Wong, has given it a fashionable, popular old club vibe.

Materials salvaged from old buildings are now more commonly used by designers (though they do not come cheaply), as is reconditioned furniture. The tolerance for eclecticism, or as one friend put it, ‘beachcomber chic’, is rising as Hong Kong homeowners are showing a new willingness to trawl sites like AsiaXpat for secondhand pieces. All the mixing and matching has people embracing their creative streaks. The last big depression saw new technology and cold, sleek industry celebrated; this one looks set to be warmer.

At the London Design Festival last September all eyes were on craft, particularly at the mydeco design boutique, which showcased unique home-made products. Here Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek presented his handcrafted furniture out of scrap wood, and Lisa Whatmough showed her brand, Squint (pictured), which grew up around antique textiles she had collected. Similar gems were to be seen at the Milan Furniture Fair, such as the embroidered upholstered furniture line My Beautiful Backside by Ango-Indian designer team Doshi Levien for Moroso. Reports from the Maison and Objet fair in Paris last month were of soft, vintage colours in nostalgic prints and dusky faded hues: delicate pinks, pale yellows and duck egg blues, and of furniture that’s heavy and reassuring; the kind that looks as if it will last through this crunch and the next.

As that comfort factor starts to take hold (the sale of cookies have reportedly soared over the last year), designers like Whatmough are choosing to give consumers emotional engagement with products, and a feeling of sanctuary rather than new technology. Even at the high end, craft is coming back. “When we look for exclusive product, it is hard for us to go into big, mass produced collections which require huge design resource and tooling costs,” creative director of London’s the Conran Shop, Polly Dickens has explained. “So we turn to craft and produce things hand-made in small qualities with a unique signature.”

This may be disconcerting for Asian consumers, who have often associated old products and materials with poverty, but a recent change in sensibility has seen businesses and home owners more ready to accept earthier textures in among the gloss. “Compared to five years ago people’s tastes have become more cultivated,” says Federico Masin, a Venetian architect and designer based in Hong Kong. “They realise comfort or luxury has more than one face; textures and rough materials are more accepted.”
But then others aren’t so sure. “We are all figuring out the new order,” joked Jane Chang, whose Wanchai store, Flea + Cents stocks retro design goods. “Right now lifestyle gurus are taking about calm and basic styles, but I don’t think it will stay like that for long. Hong Kong people like whatever’s new.”