Efforts to aid the tortured and falsely accused
For eight years, Wassila Seidou has fought to free her 75-year-old father, who is a political prisoner in Togo. After years of torture and the rough conditions in the prison, his health is deteriorating. Without his family, Issifou Seidou would have been dead a long time ago, she says. Human rights organizations in the Togolese Republic are doing what they can to stop torture and help those who are victims of the Gnassingbé Dynasty.
This is the second part in a series of three reportages about Togo (1,3). In this installment, Blankspot’s Nils Resare is granted an interview with prisoner of conscience Seidou Issifou’s daughter, Wassila, in Stockholm, while Martin Schibbye meets with human rights workers in the Togolese capital.
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Wassila Seidou walks with determined steps toward the Swedish Foreign Ministry located in the heart of Stockholm. For the first time she will be allowed to look through the whole file on her dad, Issifou Seidou, which the Swedish government has refused to share. Much of the material is classified, and she is only allowed to read it while in the cabinet office’s special research library. Relations with the Swedish Foreign Ministry have been strained for a long time. During the eight years her dad has been imprisoned, without trial, she hasn’t once been granted a meeting with anyone in the Foreign Ministry. She has been shuffled around between different administrators, and it’s Wassila and her family that have informed the Foreign Ministry of Issifou’s condition and needs.
“Without his family, he would have been dead a long time ago,” she says. “We supply him with food, medicine and toiletries.”
One administrator asked Wassila how she could be so sure her father was innocent.
“First of all, a person is innocent until he or she has been found guilty, and secondly, what kind of question is that? We felt distrusted,” Wassila says.
She sits down at a desk of pine and leafs through her father’s thick file. Some of the documents are still classified and are not to be photographed or copied. Eight years of reports, e-mails, analysis, hopes and strategies.
“This is a lot,” she says and starts going through the footwork by Swedish diplomats.
Most of the notes are sparse but the diplomats in the file are familiar to Wassila. She knows about the 16 months her father was locked into an isolation cell, forced to spend day and night in total darkness; she knows about the torture. The night when he was first arrested they banged on the cell door so he couldn’t sleep.
That same treatment kept on every night for more than a year. Her father hardly received any food, and there were no books, no toiletries at all, nor did he get a chance to clean himself. Some nights they hung him in the window, in handcuffs.
“It says here that his vision is going bad and he has issues with his blood pressure because of the torture,” Wassila says and looks up from the papers.
So the Swedish Foreign Ministry knew that…
She keeps on reading and finds an interview with the chief of the Togolese Secret Service, who rebuts accusations that Seidou Issifou is denied food, sometimes for days. The response to the Swedish Foreign Ministry was that he was getting fed every day and had only been in an isolation cell for 24 hours. Swedish authorities demand that their citizen (Issifou is naturalized) gets food, every day. Looking at it now, she feels that the quest for food is a bit naïve. During these 16 months was when her father endured the worst torture.
The file’s documents also suggest that everyone thought he’d be freed after a trial, since the Togolese general attorney didn’t have any evidence against Issifou, or the others who were arrested and thrown in prison at the same time.
The file also shows that Togo was forced to conduct an investigation where the prisoners were interviewed. But the man in charge of a special commission to carry out the investigation had to flee Togo, when the report was about to be released, and the regime released its own edited, version.
Wasilla keeps on leafing through the documents. New cells. Military prisons. The Swedish diplomats’ questions, and the responses from the Togolese regime denying the torture accusations. In another document the Togolese secret service refutes that they have ever had Seidou Issifou in their custody. If they did, it was “half an hour” at the most. The Togolese officers also claim they are not in charge of any kind of torture center. “I have never locked up a prisoner,” one states.
During these years, from 2009 to 2011, Wassila and the rest of the family hardly knew where he was. The fear made her travel to Togo in order to search for her father on location. With a daughter’s determination, she was allowed audience with one of the president’s sons. But he couldn’t tell her where Seidou Issifou was held and referred her to the secret service. She was persistent and left only after being threatened with arrest.
Wassila continued her search and when she arrived at barracks of the secret service, they denied having him at their facility. At the same time, the situation in Togo took a turn for the worse. More and more inquiries as to the whereabouts of the missing prisoners came in. To calm things down, Togolese authorities allowed the Swedish diplomat, Mikael Broman, a quick visit with Issifou as well as taking a photo of him.
“You can see in the photo that he’s very thin and his hair has turned white, and he was handcuffed,” Wassila says. “I’ve saved the picture because it was a sign that he was alive.”
According to the notes from that meeting, Issifou didn’t say much.
“I think he was scared to talk, he was hoping to get freed,” Wassila says.
The prosecutors never presented any evidence. No photos of weapons storages. No recruits. All that was there was an accusation that Issifou Seidou was trying to take power from the current regime.
And Issifou knew who held him captive. It was the very same security service he had given decades of his life to, in order to protect the president.
“I know he was involved with the secret services, but he also had good contacts within the opposition,” Wassila says. “I would describe him as a person many different people liked.”
The daughter believes the motive behind his capture was caused by a rift within the presidential family. Everyone they thought were loyal to the former minister of security was thrown in prison.
“I just have a hard time believing that anyone would see my dad as a threat since he has worked with this regime for such a long time,” she says. “If he and some group wanted to seize power, he would have tried that a long time ago, not as a 70-something.”
Wassila is convinced her father is still in Togo because there are so many people who respect and listen to him, on both sides.
“I am also convinced that he knows a lot more than he admits, but he probably fears that…Yeah, what is he scared of?”
In 2009, Issifou returned to West Africa after years as an expat in Sweden, where he had become a naturalized citizen. First he lived in Benin, but then he was invited back to Togo by President Gnassingbé.
Wassila doesn’t think her father deemed it risky to return and the explanation is simple—he loved his country and wanted to live and die there. He also never really felt at home in Sweden, even if he tried. He was depressed for long periods of time and felt alone. To go from being an officer with a lot of responsibility, to being labeled as a refugee and immigrant was a big adaptation.
Wassila made several trips in search for her father, and finally found him at the Lomé city prison, in 2016. The last time she saw him, in December of 2016, his asthma had gotten severe.
“He has problems with his lungs, irregular heart beats, his vision is very bad and his joints are constantly aching,” she says. “We are talking about a man in his 70s that is being tortured here. Luckily he is mentally strong and when we get to see him, he is encouraging and hopeful and wants us to have a positive attitude.”
For every year that passes, Wassila’s concerns grow. She is worried her dad will never leave the prison alive, and this worry has made her travel down to Togo with her children, despite the risks.
“All of us siblings try to visit him in prison with our children because we know he may never come home.”
After about an hour of studying the file, Wassila realizes that Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, has never visited Togo, or personally looked into her father’s case.
“She should visit Togo and my dad,” she says. “It is one of Africa’s oldest dictatorships we are talking about here. It’s a forgotten nation and one that makes too little noise to be noticed.”
Wassila also thinks that the Swedish Foreign Ministry has put too much trust in the French Embassy, which is engaged in Issifou’s case. Sweden does not have an embassy in Togo, but their ambassador in Nigeria has assisted some.
“The French have other interests to protect in this region. They aren’t there primarily to enforce human rights,” she says.
Togolese protetest outside Parliament in Stockholm.
Over the years Wassila has also noticed that the activity of the diplomatic efforts in freeing her dad, depends largely on whom is the Swedish ambassador in Nigeria.
“The current one has good contacts, but I don’t think this type of work should depend on that, an ambassador should do his or her job regardless,” she says.
It is quiet in the research library, but outside the world moves on. The traffic rumbles on the highways outside. Wassila scans more information in Issifou’s file. New visits. Appeals for pardon were turned in, and denied. All the while, Issifou’s health is deteriorating. There are questions about whether to apply more petitions for mercy and appealing to international courts.
“I am still trying to wrap my head around this. He has been imprisoned for eight years, and considering the longevity, I feel that Sweden could push harder and not just sit in wait,” Wassila says.
She finds documents contemplating whom is going to visit whom and when. Wassila’s frustration grows.
“It’s completely toothless,” she says. “The EU and the Foreign Ministry have to be able to take a strong stance against a dictatorship when political prisoners disappear!”
Time is of essence.
“Three-hundred people die in that prison every year. The fact that my father is alive is largely thanks to the fact that many of the guards sympathize with him and that he gets food from the outside.”
Wassila takes a break from the file and contemplates why her dad brought her and the family to Sweden.
“His plan was to be able to give us good educations so we could return and help Africa develop in a positive way.”
Despite the risks—her father is a political prisoner after all, —Wasilla has never been scared to travel to Togo, even if the regime threatens her and says they are watching her every move.
“I am loud when I am in Togo, engaged and participate in demonstrations,” she says. “I also try to be there during elections.”
Wassila is also involved in an opposition party for the Togolese diaspora, which has a chapter in Sweden. The election in 2020 is crucial, and her father’s case can be a factor in the end results. Issifou’s fate has been a wakeup call for many Togolese, both those in exile and in the homeland.
“Togo’s future is at stake. Will the Gnassingbé family be allowed to run its dynasty, or should and can, someone else lead the country?” Wassila asks. “That’s a question that only the people can answer, by their vote.”
Meanwhile, in Togo, the feelings are mixed about the looming elections, local ones will be held in 2018, and presidential in 2020. Violence against the oppositionists (or anyone who could pose at threat) escalates around the elections. It always does. People are thrown in prison; people disappear.
Human rights organizations are working for people like Issifou Seidou, and other victims of the Gnassingbé Dynasty. Kao Atcholi, the president for ASSVITO (L’Association des Victimes de Torture du Togo) an organization that works to stop torture in Togo, is one of them. He has personal experience.
Dead bodies once surrounded him. Live ones too. The stench was horrible. Blood. Sweet. Mold. The air was stagnant and it was so crowded in the cell they had to sleep sitting up, back to back. The walls were of stone, the door of steel and there was one crack just underneath the ceiling, allowing for fresh air. Someone usually died overnight.
“It was a death cell. They didn’t want to execute any of us, so we died slowly, one by one,” says Kao Atcholi.
He was imprisoned on vague charges and was resleased just as suddenly a few years ago. _ Sitting under the sun at a café in the outskirts of the city, it is hard to imagine Atcholi’s experiences. The music from a speaker by the register makes our conversation safe from prying ears at the neighboring tables. Car after car swooshes by on the street behind him. He is casually dressed in a cap and white T-shirt. This person who held the post with ASSVITO, an organization against torture in Togo, was forced into exile, to avoid five years in prison, after being convicted of “instigation of a general uprising.”
“We are persecuted but we keep on working, as hard as we can, to reach our goal that those responsible will be brought to justice,” Kao Atcholi explains calmly.
During his time as a prisoner, many of his fellow inmates committed suicide. He contemplated the option numerous times, and felt a great sorrow about what had happened, both to him and his country.
A bible and faith in change helped him endure the torture.
“I have seen so many innocent people who have been tortured, and those who are still imprisoned should always feel that there is someone who is fighting for them on the outside. That knowledge is what helps you survive. I will never let them down,” he says and puts down is phone on the rickety café table.
The cell phone is constantly abuzz, now with yet another message announcing the upcoming elections.
Faure Gnassingbé has been president in the West African country since 2005, when he inherited the post at the death of his father, Eyadéma Gnassingbé, who hade ruled Togo for 38 years.
“Election campaigns are not good for human rights in Togo. Oppositionists and those who are suspected to be disloyal within the army are already being arrested, as a preventative measure,” Atcholi explains.
“Compiling and sending out reports, that’s all we can do,” Kao Atcholi says.
Historically, national human rights organizations have played an important role in the Togolese Republic. The cinch in the political arena has oftentimes led the protagonists of the opposition to fight back through non-governmental organizations and outside party lines.
In contrast to his predecessors, Kao Atcholi has an advantage. A few years ago, the use of torture became a criminal act, (though it has technically long been declared so in Togo’s constitution.) According Article 21, “Man is holy and irreversible. No one may be subjected to torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The law also states that nobody can avoid punishment with the defense that they “just followed orders.”
But those words have just been wishful thinking thus far.
“Nobody has ever been convicted of torture, it’s rather the opposite,” Kao Atcholi explains. “Those who torture are usually encouraged.”
In a report which was put in front of parliament, as one step in the implementation of the law that criminalizes torture, it is also recommended that the Togolese government, “on a regular basis” puts forward “clear and categorized instructions” to police and prison personnel, reminding them that torture and abuse of prisoners is illegal.
Change is in motion.
But it is one step forward and one step back.
On the one hand, the opposition is allowed to work toward their goal, but on the other—the government is not following the recommendations.
“The country is under the power of the son of a dictator, the repression is there, and we all know that we are at risk for repercussions,” Kao Atcholi says.
Before ASSVITO was formed, the president asked Kao Atcholi not to start the work of supporting the families of those tortured and imprisoned. When Atcholi insisted, he was offered money to halt his efforts. Today, he has a standing invitation for a meeting with president. He continues to decline, politely.
“If he complies with the recommendations he and his regime have received from the U.N., we’ll be happy to meet him,” Kao Atcholi states. “That is our response.”
He looks down at his phone again. It’s time to leave and our meeting is over.
“The risk that I will get arrested is constant, but I continue my work, one day at the time, because I have promised the innocent people who are still in prison that I will fight for them.”
For a long time Kao Atcholi’s organization worked alone, but over the past few years they have found allies in Togo.
The taxi driver hesitates for a moment before he agrees to drive to the address I give him. Once we arrive, it’s impossible to miss the entrance, which is adorned with Amnesty International’s large logo, painted on the cinderblock wall.
A guard meticulously records every visitor with name, passport number and address, before I am escorted through the green metal door. Inside a courtyard, the walls are adorned with the organization’s different campaigns and a plant pot is painted in Amnesty’s yellow color.
One of the posters shows the growth of Togo’s Amnesty chapter since 2010, boasting more than 2,000 members to date and 25,000 people who have been educated in human rights.
“When I was young, Amnesty International was an underground organization. The meetings for a few selected were held in secret locations. It was like being a member of a secret spy outfit and few dared to join,” says Aime Adi, explaining that the transparency of later years is an intentional strategy.
In 1999, Amnesty International in Togo published a report in which they claimed that the Gnassingb’e Dynasty was responsible for throwing hundreds of political opponents into the ocean.
The report landed widespread media coverage and the government’s response was planting large demonstrations in the streets, rejecting the allegations.
The government of Togo sued Amnesty and argued that it was all a lie. Some activists said the claim was based on “blind people who had seen things.”
“It became dangerous to be a member,” Aime Adi recalls.
Many of Amnesty International’s members fled to Ghana, Benin and France. Those who stayed kept a low profile. Eventually, an international commission found truth in the allegations, but it was impossible to know just how many had been thrown into the ocean. The corpses by then were too decomposed.
So many years later, when Aime Adi saw that Amnesty was looking for a national coordinator for its office in Lomé, it wasn’t without concern he applied. Then he decided that the concern he felt was crucial to overcome.
“The most important thing for me was to not show fear, to open up the organization, be visible, write official reports, speak to media and create a dialogue with the government.”
Some people shook their heads at his plans, which they felt were dangerous and risky.
“We are doing this in order for human rights to be respected in Togo, and then we cannot be afraid,” was Aime Adi’s argument.
The strategy quickly proved successful and new members signed up, every week.
“Our relationship with the authorities is complicated, they usually slam the door in our face, but we are able to get our reports to them through different channels anyway.”
Aime Adi believes the government uses the presence of Amnesty International in Togo, and that it is allowed to exist, when criticized by the international community.
“During state visits from other countries, they want to advertise themselves as if they are an open and tolerant regime, one that also is open to critique. So in a way, we are kind of like a hostage, but if that’s the best we can do for now, we’ll have to accept that, as long as it gives us the opportunity to operate.”
The walls of Amnesty International’s Togo office are filled with posters about torture and efforts to abolish the practice. The issue is a high priority for the organization, and a lot has happened in regards to it in recent time.
“Just a few years ago, torture was systematic and many people didn’t even know that it was illegal, neither those torturing nor the victims.”
Amnesty has put a lot of energy into enlightening both the justice system and the public about torture’s unconstitutionality. And it is this work that has paved way for the new law.
“Still people, especially protesters, are beaten until they admit to organizing demonstrations, and all kinds of assault and abuse still occur at police stations. But the formalized torture in prisons, we have managed to get somewhere with,” Aime Adi explains.
Their reports show a number of recent examples of torture being used for forced confessions.
“The authorities pussyfoot around the problem and rarely admit to it. Commonly they blame violence on someone resisting, or refusing to get into a car, or something like that.”
Car horns blare outside as the white curtains with Amnesty’s logo flutter in the breeze, a cooling shield from the hot African sun.
A few years ago, Amnesty noticed a slight glimmer of hope for change, as local and presidential elections get closer relations have turned frostier.
“Since January, we have several cases in the northern parts of Togo where we see how people that may pose competition in elections are being thrown in prison for unclear reasons,” Aime Adi says.
If this negative trend continues, there is reason to worry.
“I must admit that I am not optimistic,” Aime Adi says.”If those who are responsible for the assaults get away with it, if they are immune to punishment—then Togo’s future is in grave danger.”
As for the future, Aime Adi puts his faith in regional actors and points out that the ECOWAS Court of Justice has criticized the Togolese regime for its torture practices.
“The Court of Justice for Human Rights is crucial,” he says. “They have condemned Togo’s actions several times. I would never have dreamed that would happen a few years ago.”
In spite of it all, the local chapter of Amnesty International readies for its next hurdle.
“We have recently begun to work for LGBTQ -persons rights, and if addressing the torture practices by the regime was hard, this feels impossible,” Aime Adi says. “Media has gone into attack mode. What I read about myself in the news right now is outrageous.”
It is illegal to be gay in the Togolese Republic and the punishment for being a homosexual is up to four years in prison.
“They attack me personally, media doesn’t understand that this is about human rights,” Aime Adi says. “So this won’t be easy, but I find support thinking of the many young men who are turned away by their families.”
He doesn’t regret for a second that he applied for and got the job with Amnesty International.
“I believe the dissidents are important in order to develop a society,” he says. “We are needed for Togo’s future.”
You have read the second installment in a series of three long-form reportages from the Togolese Republic by Martin Schibbye and Nils Resare of Blankspot.se. Click here for part one and here for part three.
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