As Torture Survivors Watch, Activists Stage Arrests Near White House

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005

The men and women who survived imprisonment, beatings and rapes knew ahead of time that yesterday's arrest of a group of their supporters in front of the White House was a symbolic protest to spotlight the continuing use of torture by governments around the world, including the United States.

Even though they were not among the nine people arrested, several survivors of torture who gathered to mark the eighth annual United Nations day of support for torture victims said just watching the planned act of civil disobedience triggered painful memories that caught them off guard.

Francisco Flores, a victim of torture in El Salvador, stood in the scorching heat amid a crowd of about 100 protesters and spectators. But shortly after noon, as police began handcuffing the nine demonstrators holding protest signs on the sidewalk in front of the White House, he became visibly upset.

Next to him stood Niky Stockhausen, an intern with the Washington-based group Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, which organized yesterday's protest. "You don't have to watch it," she told him. So Flores, 43, retreated across the street to Lafayette Square.

"I relive the moment," Flores said later in an interview, describing his earlier emotions. Twenty-five years ago, the church activist said he was arrested and tortured for three days by El Salvador's National Guard. He said he received electric shock to his genitals, was hung naked and was raped three times by a sergeant.

"They take me in a van, just like that," he added, gesturing to a white U.S. Park Police van that would transport the demonstrators to a police processing center. They were charged with violating the restricted area in front of the White House and released a few hours later, a Park Police spokesman said.

Organizers said they wanted to highlight this year's theme -- "Torture: Where's the Outrage?" -- by staging the act of civil disobedience and occupying a mock detention cell in Lafayette Square. Volunteers took turns donning bright orange jump suits and black hoods covering their heads to sit handcuffed in the cell as mock prisoners.

For many of the survivors, " 'remember' can be a very painful word," said Lan Mercado, 43, an anti-poverty worker who flew from the Philippines to attend yesterday's events.

The purpose is to wake up the American public, said Orlando Tizon, assistant director of the coalition and himself a torture survivor. Even after reports of abuses were detailed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the U.S.-run detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "the American public is still silent," he said.

"Why are people not outraged?" he asked. "This is not an issue of the [political] left or right. . . . This is a very moral issue that transcends all of that."

The Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area has one of the largest concentrations of torture survivors, possibly as many as 50,000, Tizon said. That number is based on estimates from clinicians who have treated clients at treatment centers in Falls Church and Baltimore, he said.

Mugisho Bazibuhe, 29, is one of those survivors. The Alexandria resident arrived in the area two years ago from Congo. As an anti-government activist, Bazibuhe was arrested twice and held, once for three weeks and another time for four months, he said. He was beaten with a belt cut from a car tire.

Yesterday's activities drew some interest from onlookers. But several tourists appeared more interested in snapping photos with the eight U.S. Park Police officers on horseback and turned their gaze from demonstrators, including one man dressed as a prisoner, a black hood over his head, kneeling on the pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue.

A young woman, a Rutgers University senior, held a small, white poodle as she posed for a photo. "We don't really want to get involved," she said as she adjusted her sunglasses. "Are they protesting Iraq?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company