Newsmaker: In the torture chair

Graham Willgoss

Simon Carruth Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture - Pressing western governments to commit to human rights.

The erosion of principles around the torture and ill-treatment of people is extremely worrying," says Simon Carruth, referring to last month's newspaper headlines featuring British soldiers allegedly physically abusing teenage protesters at a military base in Iraq.

As the new chief executive of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Carruth believes the West is allowing its standards to slip.

"Part of the bedrock of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that people shall not be treated or subjected to cruel or inhuman forms of punishment," he says. "There are no ifs or buts about that. Human beings should not be treated in that way for any reason, yet still politicians and the public in the US - and in Britain to a lesser extent - think that if they are suspected terrorists, it's justified. It's not."

In a perverse way, though, don't stories such as these, along with the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the west's 'war on terror', present the foundation with ever more opportunities to connect with the general public? Carruth says it's not as simple as that.

"Getting coverage is always a struggle, but we will continue to campaign," he says. "It undermines the humanity and credibility of the governments of the societies responsible - they shoot themselves in the foot. It's extraordinary that western governments should resort to anything even approaching torture."

Listening to Carruth discuss one of the most horrific subjects human beings can comprehend in such a calm and unemotional manner is a tad surreal. But his demeanour is so laid back that it comes as no surprise to learn that the tattoos poking out from beneath both shirtsleeves - and the one that almost completely covers his chest - are Buddhist images. Carruth studied western philosophy at university but says it left him somewhat cold; in his spare time he began to examine eastern philosophy, which moved him much more. He converted to Buddhism in his twenties.

Carruth has been a loyal servant of the foundation he now leads since 1991, when he joined it as finance manager. Now he has finally secured the top post on a permanent basis, having been its acting chief executive for the past year.

"My attitude was that, although I was in the position of acting chief executive, I was going to do it as though it was permanent," he says.

"I didn't think I could afford to have the attitude of being here in a holding role, waiting for someone else to come in and sort everything out."

Carruth says the foundation must continue to develop its services throughout the UK, and particularly in Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. He also hopes it will open offices in Birmingham and Leeds in the next two years.

"At one time our client base was largely in and around London," he explains.

"But because of the Government's policy on dispersing asylum seekers - who make up a great many of our clients - there are now torture survivors in many cities around the UK.

"The ultimate aim must be to put ourselves out of business, but sadly that's not going to be achievable in the foreseeable future," Carruth says. "In some ways, things are getting worse in terms of the erosion of governments' commitment to human rights.

"Our job gets ever bigger, but I am an optimist," he adds. "I do believe mankind is capable of taking big steps forward, and the abolition of torture is achievable. But even if that were to be achieved, the effects of torture are life-long - there will be people who need our services for a long time to come."


2006: Chief executive, Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture

2005: Acting chief executive, Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture

1998: Finance director, Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture

1986: Finance worker, Hackney Co-operative Development Agency

1984: Secretary of Smaller Firms Council, Confederation of British Industry

1977: Administrative assistant, CBI.

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