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Public Statements

Torture Victims Relief Reauthorization Act Of 2009

Statement

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself as much time as I may consume.

I thank my friend and colleague for his kind remarks and for his strong support for this humanitarian legislation. It's deeply appreciated. Mr. Speaker, many Americans and perhaps a few Members of Congress may be shocked to learned that nationwide, there are an estimated 500,000 torture survivors in the United States, men and women who came, in most cases, to the U.S. as refugees. Worldwide, it's impossible to count the numbers, but the numbers are in the several millions. As chairmen of the Human Rights Subcommittee in prior Congresses, we put together a large number of hearings on the issue of torture. Numerous torture survivors testified at those hearings about the paralyzing scars from the physical as well as psychological wounds of torture that remain for years and usually for a lifetime.

I'm happy to say that Chairman McGovern of the Tom Lantos Congressional Human Rights Commission under the able leadership of Hans Hognefe--thank you, Hans for having that hearing just recently, where we heard again about the need for this kind of approach but also the horror that these people had faced and the ongoing scars that they endure. Their painful memories make it all too clear that torture impacts not only the individual victims but, as we know now, the families themselves, the families who have to deal mostly with post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifests itself with such agony in the lives of these people.

Mr. Speaker, in 1998 Congress took an historic step towards attempting to repair the broken lives of torture victims with the passage of the Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998. I was a prime sponsor of that legislation and subsequent reauthorizations. Despite all of those efforts, however, there continues to be an enormous need and, I would submit, an escalating need for us to reach out to the victims of torture who oftentimes have no other recourse for their suffering.

Over the years, as I said, and now to current day with the Tom Lantos Commission, we've had hearings with the torture victims from the Soviet Bloc, Africa, Asia as well as Central and South America. One of the witnesses at the last hearing that I chaired on this issue was Mr. Sheikh Sackor, the founder of Humanist Watch Liberia and a survivor of torture in Liberia. Mr. Sackor testified to the brutal physical treatment, including the use of electrical shocks and the psychological abuse that he suffered at the hands of the regime of Charles Taylor.

Mr. Sackor was finally released from prison with the help of the United States embassy in Liberia. He fled to the U.S. and was admitted to the Bellevue Hospital Program for Survivors of Torture where he received medical and psychiatric care, evidentiary support for his asylum application and eventually, assistance finding employment with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Mr. Sackor concluded his testimony at the hearing by stating, ``Mine is a story like so many other individuals around the country cared for by the torture treatment centers funded by the Torture Victims Relief Act. But I know from my fellow torture victims,'' he went on, ``now living in the United States that the need for more services is enormous. I urge you to do whatever you can to increase funding for the centers doing this important work. For survivors of torture, this is truly a matter of life and death.''

It is to help people like Mr. Sackor that I and so many others, 26 cosponsors who bring this bill today, including JIM OBERSTAR, who has been a leader for so many years on these issues. The organizations in Minnesota, New Jersey, Florida, all over the country doing heroic work in assisting refugees and asylees within our own country, such as the International Institute of New Jersey, need the funding that would be authorized under this legislation to help individuals overcome the scars of torture so that they can finally, at long last, integrate successfully into our society.

The Institute of New Jersey, for example, provides refugee resettlement services in New Jersey that include medical care, English language training, housing, employment, vocational referrals, mental health counseling, and social adjustment services. The benefits of such programs far outweigh any cost. It's an investment in people who have been harmed in most cases by despotic regimes.

H.R. 1511 has three components. The domestic aspect is designed to ensure that particular attention is given to torture victims in regions within the U.S. that have significant immigrant and refugee populations. The measure authorizes $25 million for each fiscal year 2010 and 2011 to the Department of Health and Human Services to assist domestic treatment centers. There are over 20 programs in 15 States assisted by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.

In addition to direct assistance to survivors of torture and their families, many of these centers are also engaged in training mainstream organizations and personnel in the specialized treatment that is required for torture victims. The Department of Health has said over 3,200 individuals were assisted during the 6-month period in '06 to '07; and the primary countries of origin to grant beneficiaries included Cameroon, Ethiopia, Iran, DR Congo, Iraq, Sudan and Togo.

It is important, Mr. Speaker, that the United States also express concrete concern for victims overseas. H.R. 1511, therefore, authorizes $12 million for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 for foreign treatment centers and programs administered through USAID's Victims of Torture Fund. The funding is intended to give particular emphasis to supporting centers and programs abroad in emerging democracies and in post-conflict environments. I would note parenthetically that as I travel on human rights missions abroad, Mr. Speaker, I often visit those centers to see the good work that's being done to help people, like in Bucharest, where--the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu, the brutal tyrant of Romania--people are being assisted tangibly who spent time suffering torture under the Securitate, his secret police.

Lastly, Mr. Speaker, the measure encourages international cooperation and awareness of this issue by authorizing $12 million to the U.N. Voluntary Fund For Torture Victims. The type of humanitarian assistance provided by organizations that receive grants from the fund, including organizations in the U.S., consists mainly of, again, psychological, medical, social and legal assistance. I hope my colleagues can support this legislation.

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