After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.
Maj. General Antonio Taguba (Ret.), who led the Army’s 2004 investigation into the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. (From the foreword of Broken Laws, Broken Lives).
It is impossible to escape a mixture of sadness and fury while reading the 149 horrific pages of the just-released report published by Physicians for Human Rights and called Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by the US. Sadness for the victims. Fury for the fact that American citizens have paid for the ghastly criminal acts of guards and interrogators at U.S.-run prisons in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and Afghanistan. Sadness that Americans are now seen as torturers worldwide. Fury that high officials who ordered these acts are not digging holes and filling them up every day on some penal atoll.
The torture those officials authorized has been revealed over the years in bits and pieces. We’ve seen the photographs. Newspaper stories, magazine articles and a dozen books have been written. There have been previous scathing reports, including two by PHR. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have delved into the matter. There was, of course, the Army’s 2004 investigation into what happened at Abu Ghraib. And, better late than never, Senator Carl Levin began presiding Tuesday over three days of hearings on the subject, Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody.
For the first time, however, Broken Laws, Broken Lives has added grim evidence gleaned from medical tests, both physical and psychological, of 11 former detainees. Unique stories, but with a theme that cannot - and must not - be ignored. The evidence was gathered and evaluated under strict internationally recognized standards and procedures for determining whether someone has been tortured or ill-treated and for documenting the consequences in a manner so that the results can be used in court. These standards are part of the Istanbul Protocol, Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the United Nations in 1999.
We'll take a look at one of those 11 cases in a minute.
PHR is a 20-year-old human rights organization that shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 with five other non-governmental organizations making up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. According to PHR, Broken Laws, Broken Lives ...
... demonstrates that the permissive environment created by implicit and explicit authorizations by senior US officials to "take the gloves off" encouraged forms of torture even beyond the draconian methods approved at various times between 2002 and 2004. In an environment of moral disengagement that countenances authorized techniques designed to humiliate and dehumanize detainees, it is not surprising that other forms of human cruelty such as physical and sexual assault were practiced. The fact that these unauthorized torture practices happened over extended periods of time at multiple US detention facilities suggests that a permissive command environment existed across theatres and at several levels in the chain-of-command. This climate allowed both authorized and unauthorized techniques to be practiced, apparently without consequence.
Given the limited number of detainees evaluated, the findings of this assessment cannot be generalized to the treatment of all detainees in US custody. The patterns of abuse documented in this report, however, are consistent with numerous governmental and independent investigations into allegations of detainee mistreatment making it reasonable to conclude that these detainees were not the only ones abused, but are representative of a much larger number of detainees subjected to torture and ill-treatment while in US custody.
As a consequence of this report and its previous work, PHR recommends: 1) establishing an independent commission with subpoena power and full access to classified documents to investigate and publicly report on detention and interrogation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo Bay, and other locations; 2) holding to account all individuals "who played any role in the torture or ill-treatment of detainees, including those who authorized the use of methods amounting to torture or exercised command authority over them"; 3) issuing of a formal government apology to detainees subjected to torture; 4) setting up a system for compensating and assisting victims of torture experienced while in U.S. custody; 5) international monitoring of all U.S.-operated places of detention; 6) releasing by the U.S. Department of Justice of all legal opinions and other memoranda concerning standards regarding interrogation and detention policy and practices; and 7) repudiating in writing all forms of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by government or contract personnel.
It was not easy to find individuals who would undergo a medical examination, talk openly about degrading and painful experiences that have left them with physical and emotional scars, post-traumatic stress disorder and utterly changed lives. Each was accorded anonymity and is referred to in the report by pseudonym. Each of the 11 former detainees was evaluated over two days by a medical doctor and a psychiatrist or psychologist well-experienced in effects of torture. "In each case," PHR wrote, "the clinicians provided opinions on possible torture and ill-treatment based on correlations between individual allegations of torture and specific physical and psychological evidence. They found no evidence of deliberate exaggeration in any case." [Emphasis mine -MB]
Let’s meet one of them, as described by PHR, an Iraqi they call Amir, which means "prince" in Arabic.
In his interview, Amir said: "No sorrow can be compared to my torture experience in jail. That is the top reason for my sadness. I cannot forget it."
Arrested in August 2003 in Baghdad, he was held by U.S. authorities for 17 months. Brutally beaten, sodomized, placed in stress positions, forced to go naked for long periods, humiliated sexually, bombarded with noise, and tortured in other ways, Amir has since continued to suffer "from physical and psychological symptoms since his release. He reported several marked impairments in his social, sexual, and emotional functioning subsequent to his detention."
In his twenties when he was arrested, Amir earned his living as a salesman, the sole provider for his mother, his younger brother, his younger brother’s wife, and their three children. Arrested at a Baghdad hotel while he was sleeping, he was blindfolded and shackled and taken away in a truck to one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, which had been converted to U.S. military use. He was soon removed by truck to another prison, made to undress, photographed naked, forced to stand for five or six hours, and remained blindfolded. Over the next three days, he and other prisoners were forced to run around a narrow room, denied rest and forced to eat standing. During this time, he injured his foot and, despite profuse bleeding, was forced to continue running. When he tried to tell a soldier about the injury, he was thrown against a wall and he passed out. Later an interpreter hit him in the nose with a plastic water bottle.
He was at that prison for 10 days, then transferred to another where he spent 27 days in a "small dark room" and was repeatedly interrogated and mistreated, including being pushed against a wall.
In September 2003, Amir was taken to Abu Ghraib prison.
During the course of detention, Amir recalled experiencing several other abuses. On one occasion, Amir was playing with a broken toothbrush while sitting in front of his cell. When the soldiers saw this, they confiscated the broken tooth brush and accused him of manufacturing a dangerous weapon. They told him to take off his clothes. Amir recalled that he pleaded that his religion forbids nakedness. He was nevertheless restrained naked to the bars of his cell’s door for two to three hours. He was then returned to his cell naked and without a blanket. He noted that the soldiers would come to his cell and humiliate him because of his nakedness.
Amir recounted remaining naked and being forced to pray in that condition. During that time, he recalled that a soldier came to his cell and started shouting. Amir was praying, so he did not answer. The soldier entered the cell, and pushed Amir’s head to the floor. He was then suspended with his arms up and behind his back for several hours, with only his toes touching the ground. During this time, Amir also heard increasingly high-pitched screaming from, in his words, "others who were tortured. The screaming was getting higher and higher."
Subsequently, Amir was taken to a small foul-smelling room and was forced to lay face down in urine and feces. He noted, "You can’t even breathe because of that smell... [The soldier] pushed me to lie down. I tried to move my shoulder so my face would not go to the ground. They brought a loudspeaker and started shouting in my ear. I thought my head would explode." Amir reported that a broomstick was forcibly inserted into his anus. He was hit and kicked on his back and on his side. At this point, he was bleeding from his feet and shoulders, and the urine exacerbated the pain from these wounds. He was pulled by a leather dog leash and was ordered to "howl like dogs do." When he refused to do so he was repeatedly kicked. Amir felt a hot liquid on his back and guessed that someone was urinating on him. He received more kicks on his left side and in the groin, and one of the men stepped on his genitals, causing him to faint.
Amir subsequently woke up to cold water being poured on his head. He recalled hurting all over his body, particularly on the left lateral side of his chest, his right middle finger, and his groin and genitals. He noticed that his genitals were swollen and had wounds.
When asked about his internal responses to this episode of abuse, Amir described, "My soul was flying away. Like my body was not there. I started to think about my family ...When I woke up [from the beating], I felt like I was not of this life. But my body was there, the pains in my body were there."
Following this episode, Amir was kept naked in his cell for about four days. During that period, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited him and he told them about his mistreatment. The ICRC personnel provided him with clothing and blankets, which were confiscated after they left. When the Red Cross returned the following day, these provisions were given back to him – only to be taken away again when the visitors left. ...
When asked "Did any doctor help you with your injuries?," Amir uncharacteristically interrupted the interviewer and cried out, "Did I need to ask for help? I was there naked and bleeding. They were supposed to help...These were not real doctors. They had no compassion. They were not there to practice medicine but to make war."
Among his post-detention symptoms, Amir said, are severe headaches, discomfort in his left testicle, including during intercourse, pain in his back and knees, other musculo-skeletal pain, persistent significant left lateral-side chest pain," and dizziness. He described irregular heartbeats several times a day. These he said come from his memories of abuse. "These are the memories I can never forget ...I want to forget, but it is impossible." He also described a constant nervousness, flashbacks, disturbed sleep, moodiness, outbursts of anger, sexual dysfunction, depression, thoughts of suicide and low tolerance. "I constantly feel disturbed. I would break everything in the house. When I disagree with my wife, I would smash things." Classic symptoms of PTSD.
Medical tests run by the PHR team, including a bone scan and a psychological evaluation, were consistent with Amir’s claims of mistreatment.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Amir’s treatment and that reported by several of the other former detainees is that of the medical personnel, a problem described well in Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror, a harrowing book by medical ethicist Dr. Steven H. Miles, who pried 35,000 pages of information out of the government with Freedom of Information Act applications. One thing he discovered: Early on in the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld instructed that military doctors monitor torture.
Some of the detainees reported that they received good and appropriate medical care during their detention. However, both the experiences recounted by the detainees and the medical records available in one of the cases show how physicians and other health workers became, at best, ethically compromised in these detention settings. At worst, health professionals at these sites became enablers of torture by providing medical care in an environment where torture was taking place. In fact, in some cases health professionals may have given interrogators the "green light" to continue with abusive techniques and, in other cases, the health professionals effectively patched the detainees up so that they could be abused further.
At Guantánamo, two detainees said that a person who seemed to be a doctor was present during beatings in Guantánamo Bay. Detainees also suspected that medical and psychological information gained from the detainees for treatment was shared with and used by interrogators. Three of the former Guantánamo detainees said that they spoke with psychologists. Although the men initially thought the meetings were confidential, they later had reason to believe that the psychologists shared information with interrogators.
The detainees from Guantánamo reported that they were given injections or medication without their consent. For example, one man recalled receiving an estimated ten to fifteen injections that often caused rashes. He also indicated that sometimes the injections were administered by "civilians...coming to take lessons – it was like internships."
The medical records do not indicate that the health professionals inquired into or documented any form of ill-treatment perpetrated by US soldiers. Instead, their interventions and documentation obfuscate the relationship between the detainee’s abuse and ill-treatment in confinement and his deteriorating mental and physical condition.
Broken Laws, Broken Lives makes for nightmare reading. But it is imperative that it be read. And acted upon.
As Maj. General Taguba says in the foreword:
In order for these individuals to suffer the wanton cruelty to which they were subjected, a government policy was promulgated to the field whereby the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were disregarded. The UN Convention Against Torture was indiscriminately ignored. And the healing professions, including physicians and psychologists, became complicit in the willful infliction of harm against those the Hippocratic Oath demands they protect. ...
The former detainees in this report, each of whom is fighting a lonely and difficult battle to rebuild his life, require reparations for what they endured, comprehensive psycho-social and medical assistance, and even an official apology from our government.
But most of all, these men deserve justice as required under the tenets of international law and the United States Constitution.
And so do the American people.
Indeed. No doubt many in the Cheney-Bush administration expect to run out the clock over the next 215 days and ride off into the sunset to pen their memoirs. Nobody who has observed this crew for the past seven and a half years thinks justice will be done in this matter before January 2009. Is it too much to hope that there will be some afterward? Or are we destined to see these torturers and torture enablers and torture-abettors get away without paying even the mildest penalty?
(If you are pressed for time, the link for Broken Laws, Broken Lives (http://brokenlives.info) includes a 12-page summary in addition to the 149-page full report.)
See jhutson's Video: One Detainee's Heartbreaking Story of US Torture.
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