Torture center celebrates U.N. day

The Center for Victims of Torture helps about 250 torture victims in Minnesota yearly.

As a former Ethiopian high court judge and diplomat to the United Nations, Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni did not expect to campaign against the government he worked for. But as a research fellow who graduated in May at the Human Rights Center of University of Minnesota Law School , it’s now a large part of his work.

He speaks out against executions and torture committed by the Ethiopian government and was a keynote speaker at the Center for Victims of Torture commemoration of U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on Thursday.

Segni left Ethiopia in 2005 when the ruling government, whose election was highly contested, ordered him to spy on Ethiopian-Americans campaigning against the government.

Segni said the idea was to stop those speaking against the government’s actions by charging them and their families in Ethiopia with genocide and treason.

The Center for Victims of Torture, which was created with some help from the University, treats 250 out of what they estimate is a population of 30,000 torture survivors in Minnesota each year, including refugees from Segni’s native Ethiopia.

The event celebrated the 21st anniversary of when the U.N. Convention Against Torture went into effect. The treaty, ratified by 145 countries including the United States, requires countries to prevent torture within their borders and bans states from sending a person back to a country where they are likely to be tortured.

The Center for Victims of Torture celebrates the event every year.

It was established in 1985 when then-Governor Rudy Perpich created a task force to see if a torture treatment center, the first of its kind in the United States, would be feasible in Minnesota.

In 1991 the Center for Victims of Torture rented a Victorian-style home from the University of Minnesota on East River Parkway to use as a treatment center. The Center for Victims of Torture renovated the house so it was as comfortable as possible for its patients. All corners are curved or angled, there are large windows and overhead and fluorescent lights are minimal.

From 1999 through 2007, the Center for Victims of Torture treated more than 13,000 victims. The center has grown from just a treatment facility to include advocacy, research and training treatment professionals. It provides medical treatment and psychological counseling.

Though the Center for Victims of Torture now has centers in St. Paul, Washington, D.C., Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, it still leases the house on East River Parkway from the University for $1 a year.

Graduate student Amelia Corl began an internship at the Center for Victims of Torture at the beginning of the summer.

“Many people just have no idea that this is a problem,” Corl said. “They think that U.S. citizens aren’t tortured, or people who are in the U.S. haven’t experienced torture, and that just is not true, and the center proves it.”

Corl has been working on the Campaign to Ban Torture , which launched Wednesday June 25. The campaign, which aims to obtain an executive order banning torture from all government agencies, including the CIA, has been endorsed by military leaders as well as former high-level government workers.

“They still really want that change because they want Americans to be safe, they want soldiers to be safe when they’re in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere around the world,” Corl said.

The campaign has been endorsed by several former State Department workers, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright , several former Department of Defense workers, retired military officers, World War II interrogators and others.

The CVT operates on an $8 million yearly budget and is funded largely by contributions, grants and the federal Bureau for Population Refugees and Migration . It employs doctors, psychiatrists, massage therapists and others.

For Segni, the center’s work and workers are vital to his cause.

“Minnesota became a safe haven for most of east African immigrants in part because of what the (Center for Victims of Torture) does,” Segni said. “Sixty-nine percent of (Minnesota refugees) who came from Ethiopa are tortured, and this center has contributed tremendously in rehabilitating this community.”