Frank Donaghue Calls for Trans-atlantic Probe of “Black” Site on British SoilThursday, July 31st, 2008
Medical Evidence of Torture by the US
In this morning’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof responds to Major General Antonio Taguba’s call for accountability in the Preface to Broken Laws, Broken Lives.
When a distinguished American military commander accuses the United States of committing war crimes in its handling of detainees, you know that we need a new way forward.
“There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes,” Antonio Taguba, the retired major general who investigated abuses in Iraq, declares in a powerful new report on American torture from Physicians for Human Rights. “The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
The first step of accountability isn’t prosecutions. Rather, we need a national Truth Commission to lead a process of soul searching and national cleansing.
That was what South Africa did after apartheid, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it is what the United States did with the Kerner Commission on race and the 1980s commission that examined the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Today, we need a similar Truth Commission, with subpoena power, to investigate the abuses in the aftermath of 9/11.
Kristof lists some of the reasons why a truth commission is called for:
It’s a national disgrace that more than 100 inmates have died in American custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo. After two Afghan inmates were beaten to death by American soldiers, the American military investigator found that one of the men’s legs had been “pulpified.”
Moreover, many of the people we tortured were innocent: the administration was as incompetent as it was immoral. The McClatchy newspaper group has just published a devastating series on torture and other abuses, and it quotes Thomas White, the former Army secretary, as saying that it was clear from the moment Guantánamo opened that one-third of the inmates didn’t belong there.
McClatchy says that one inmate, Mohammed Akhtiar, was known as pro-American to everybody but the American soldiers who battered him. Some of his militant fellow inmates spit on him, beat him and called him “infidel,” all because of his anti-Taliban record.
Kristof mentions in passing the fundamental problem:
[T]he US military taught interrogation techniques borrowed verbatim from records of Chinese methods used to break American prisoners in the Korean War — even though we knew that these torture techniques produced false confessions.
The SERE program, through which such techniques were adapted and disseminated as a matter of policy, fostered an environment in which torture appears to have become standard operating procedure. As PHR President Len Rubenstein has said, “once torture starts it can’t be contained.” Despite the many earlier revelations, Broken Laws, Broken Lives provides medical evidence of such abuses. With only 11 former detainees as the subjects, the report may only be scratching the surface.
The truth must be told, the criminals prosecuted and, as PHR CEO Frank Donaghue emphasizes, reparations to the victims must be made, including compensation and medical and psycho-social services.
Sondra Crosby, MD, was another of the clinical evaluators for Broken Laws, Broken Lives. She is an internist and Co-Director of the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights at Boston Medical Center and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Crosby’s clinical practice focuses on care of asylum seekers, asylees and refugees, and she has written over 200 affidavits documenting medical and psychological sequelae of torture.
On this July 4, as we celebrate the freedoms that have long brought refugees and asylum seekers to our shores, it is all the more poignant to hear Dr. Crosby say:
it is tragic and ironic that these abuses were perpetrated by the United States, the very place to which many of my patients come to seek refuge from torture.
Dr. Nguyen was one of the clinical evaluators for Broken Laws, Broken Lives. She is a former refugee of the Vietnam War, and is now a psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology. Her clinical work is devoted to severe trauma and refugee/immigrant mental health issues.
Allen Keller, MD discussed some of the findings of Broken Laws, Broken Lives the day after its release, on Democracy Now! Dr. Keller was one of the clinical evaluators and a co-author for the report.
At one point in the interview, Democracy Now’s Juan Gonzales recounted some of the horrific abuses suffered by two of the detainees examined for Broken Laws, Broken Lives. Regarding the second detainee, Gonzales said:
Yussef, who was captured in Afghanistan, talked about being subjected to electric shock from a generator, feeling, quote, “as if my veins were being pulled out.” So this was really not only borderline examples of torture; this was actual physical torture that was occurring here against some of these men.
Dr. Keller responded:
Absolutely. And it’s important, though, to note, you don’t necessarily have to lay a glove on someone for it to be torture. Sleep deprivation, all of these, quote, “enhanced” interrogation methods have devastating health consequences.
This is an important point, often lost in discussions of US torture policy. PHR’s 2005 report, Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces, goes into more detail about the false distinction between physical and psychological torture.
Psychological torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment can have extremely destructive health consequences for detainees. The effects can include memory impairment, reduced capacity to concentrate, somatic complaints such as headache and back pain, hyperarousal, avoidance, and irritability. Additionally, victims often experience severe depression with vegetative symptoms, nightmares, and “feelings of shame and humiliation” associated with sexual violations, among others.
Although these short- and long-term consequences can be debilitating, the suffering of victims of psychological torture is often disregarded because they do not have physical evidence of the abuse they suffered. The lack of physical signs can make psychological torture seem less significant than physical torture, but the consensus among those who study torture and rehabilitate its victims is that psychological torture can be more painful and cause more severe and long-lasting damage even than the pain inflicted during physical torture. Indeed, as the UN Special Rapporteur on torture pointed out:
Often a distinction is made between physical and mental torture. This distinction, however, seems to have more relevance for the means by which torture is practised than for its character. Almost invariably the effect of torture, by whatever means it may have been practised, is physical and psychological. Even when the most brutal physical means are used, the long- term effects may be mainly psychological, even when the most refined psychological means are resorted to, there is nearly always the accompanying effect of severe physical pain. A common effect is the disintegration of the personality.
Break Them Down is available for free download here.
Democracy Now! has published a transcript of Dr. Keller’s appearance on the show.