By CVT intern Leah Owens
“Survivors of torture around the world will not be silenced. With the help of CJA we are rising up to hold our abusers accountable under the law. CJA’s victories are bringing us closer to a world in which state-sponsored torture is unacceptable.”
-Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Long after the physical wounds have healed, a survivor of torture must face the significant emotional and mental scarring their abuser inflicted. But how does one attempt to rebuild a normal life without first understanding and confronting their traumatic past? The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) is founded on the principle of restoring justice to both the individuals and family members of those who have been victims of torture or other human rights violations. Using CJA’s free legal services, survivors may be encouraged to file a civil lawsuit against the violator if a guilty party is residing within the United States, and there is clear evidence against him or her. Unlike a criminal prosecution, a civil lawsuit will not result directly in jail time for the defendant, and recovery of financial compensation is rare. The process of filing a civil lawsuit can be painful and difficult for the survivor, as the retelling of his or her experience may result in retraumatization. However, most CJA clients reported feelings of closure and a sense of empowerment in taking their perpetrator to court. By holding the responsible party accountable, the torture survivor can begin to heal and move toward recovery.
It is rare for torture survivors to cross paths with their abuser within the United States. The effects of such an exchange can be traumatic for the survivor, but it can provide an opportunity to seek justice. In the event that a survivor wishes to file a lawsuit against their perpetrator, CJA offers free legal counsel to victims of egregious human rights violations from anywhere in the world. Protected by the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and The Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), CJA is able to pursue civil lawsuits filed by both U.S. citizens as well as non-U.S. citizens for “acts committed in violation of international law.” In order to qualify as a plaintiff in a civil case, an individual (or an immediate family member of a deceased torture victim) must have been personally injured by the defendant or the defendant’s co-conspirators in committing torturous acts. By participating in the case, the plaintiff in partnership with CJA lawyers sues the perpetrator and presents evidence to the court proving the defendant’s liability and requesting that the defendant be required to pay a monetary sum to the survivor.
The case can take several months, and potentially years before reaching a conclusion, especially if the defendant decides to defend against the accusations in the case. If the perpetrator does not participate in the case, the court can hold still a hearing to consider a monetary penalty against the defendant, in which case the plaintiffs have their day in court. CJA assures that all travel, housing and other related expenses are paid for, so that the plaintiff incurs no expenses when required to be physically present at the hearing. When the defendant decides to participate in the case, a plaintiff may have to answer questions from the defendant, as well as provide testimony at a deposition. Prior to the hearing, lawyers will discuss the case thoroughly with their client, ensuring they will understand the legal proceedings and will be prepared to answer any potential question asked during the hearing.
“CJA recognizes that the need for justice is an integral component of a torture victim's recovery process and that healing cannot take place when the perpetrator continues to live without consequence.” –CJA founding statement
While obtaining financial compensation for the plaintiff is rare, the process of litigation can serve to publically expose the defendant who has previously lived without consequence. Some cases have led directly to deportation, at which time the CJA can work with local authorities in the perpetrator’s home country to support criminal proceedings. In the event that the lawsuit is won, there is a possibility that the U.S. government will revoke the defendant’s visa, making it impossible for them to return to the United States. Often, high-profile cases attract media attention, sending a powerful message to government officials and military officers that no one is above the law, which can hopefully deter future acts of torture and abuse.
When a torture survivor is unable to seek justice in their home country, a case filed within the United States can be beneficial to a torture survivor’s healing process. By holding their perpetrator responsible for their actions, there is acknowledgement that human rights violations are inexcusable. Not only does this validate the survivor, but it sends a message of hope to other torture survivors worldwide. While the process of filing a lawsuit can be challenging, CJA is committed to providing support and resources to their clients. Using a survivor-centered approach, CJA facilitates the provision of medical as well as psycho-social services to their clients to help them throughout the case. A survivor is the most valuable spokesperson to speak out against torture and violence, and CJA allows those violated a chance to be heard. CJA’s trained lawyers have won every case that has gone to trial, serving justice to perpetrators worldwide.
“When I testified, a strength came over me. I felt like I was in the prow of a boat and that there were many, many people rowing behind – that they were moving me into this moment. I felt that if I looked back at them, I’d weep because I’d see them again: wounded, tortured, raped, naked, torn, bleeding. So, I didn’t look back, but I felt their support, their strength, their energy. .... Being involved in this case, confronting the Generals with these terrible facts – that’s the best possible therapy a torture survivor could have.” -Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce, CJA Client