Wayne Law student pens report about human rights group in India

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Eric Shovein relaxes with a colleague during an eight-hour train journey from Murshidabad.

As part of fellowship, student interviewed torture victims

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Wayne State University Law School student Eric Shovein went to India last year to make a difference and learn from his experiences. He came back a published author.

Shovein, who grew up locally in Grosse Pointe Woods, worked in India in 2012 with MASUM, a human rights and torture law organization, through a Wayne Law International Public Interest Law Fellowship.

As a MASUM legal intern, he spent part of last summer in a border area of West Bengal, India and Bangladesh, observing India’s Border Security Force and interviewing victims of alleged human rights violations by BSF personnel.

His report on his findings made such an impression on his MASUM hosts that they have published it as a book titled “Killing Field.” The book was introduced Feb. 9 at the International Kolkata Book Fair.

Each year Wayne’s Program for International Legal Studies provides funding to send law students to intern for legal advocacy organizations around the world. Shovein and two other students worked in India last summer while other students went to Mexico, Lebanon, Kyrgystan, Qatar, the Bahamas, and Thailand.

“Eric’s amazing experience at MASUM is typical of the kind of work Wayne Law interns are given at our partner organizations,” said Professor Gregory Fox, director of the Program for International Legal Studies in a statement. “These are groups confronting profound problems such as human rights abuses, corruption and entrenched discrimination. The interns are given full responsibility in the groups’ struggles for law reform and equal access to justice.”

Torture is generally used to either elicit information or to terrorize a populace and in this case, Shovein says, the torturers had no interest in information.

“Torture in this area is used definitely to instill fear,” he says.  “A lot of the issues in this border area are very complex. It’s not just torturing people for crossing the border. The majority of the cases I read, where there’s an extrajudicial killing or torture, were cases where people smuggling cattle or other things across the Bangladesh border. The border security forces in that area actually partake in the smuggling and they get a cut. The torture issue arises when the smugglers try to cross the border without giving the BSF their cut. The BSF torture people when they don’t get their cut from the illegal smuggling.”

Shovein had quite a commute by bus, car or train each time he went to the border for his observations.

“It’s 6-8 hours from the MASUM headquarters in Kolkata to the border area where the abuses occur,” he says. “Their work is exclusive to the India-Bangladesh border.”

There were times when Shovein had concerns about his personal safety in the remote area, but his Indian colleagues reassured him. Sort of.

“We were close to where these border guards operate and I was worried about safety at one point,” Shovein says. “I mentioned this to my coworkers and they laughed. They said, ‘Eric, these people may perpetrate torture, but India is still a liberal democracy. They’re not going to touch us.’ It’s the first time I was in a situation like that and, to be honest with you, I was a little worried.”

The torture victims Shovein worked with had a wide range of reactions to their experiences.

“Some people come in smiling and relieved that they can finally tell someone what happened to them,” he says. “Then are victims who can barely speak and would be crying the entire time.”

As his internship was coming to an end, Shovein got the idea to compile a report on MASUM’s operations.

“I finally sat down with them and said, ‘I have one month left. In my last month here I want to do something that will benefit you. I want to write a report about the NGO from front to back. The type of work you do and the socioeconomic conditions in the areas where the torture abuses occur.’”

His hosts were eager for him to do the report and said it would be beneficial to their efforts.

“I took numerous specific cases and talked about them and then looked at the overall system and talked about how it was failing as well,” he says. “I went through all their files, looked for patterns and wrote the report.  Although I wrote it as a report, they decided to publish it as a book.”

Shovein always knew he wanted to be involved in public service and spent a year with an AmeriCorps program in Lansing helping turn vacant lots owned by the Ingham County Land Bank into free community gardens. He then taught English in an elementary school on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. He also was part of another AmeriCorps program called BrightStars in Detroit, where he helped young children prepare to start school.

He says he was originally drawn to Wayne’s law school because of its opportunities for students in public service and the international fellowships offered by the International Public Interest Law Fellowships.

Shovein’s public service work will continue after he graduates from law school in 2014. He hopes to work in immigration law or international human rights law.