Archive for category Torture

Libya has an opportunity to become the first Arab Spring state to end torture

Prison guard in a prison in Libya

A prison guard stands near prisoners who are suspected of being fighters for Muammar Gaddafi at a post office, where they are being detained, in Joumaa market district in Tripoli August 30, 2011. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Wael Abdelgawad |

One of the things the people fought for in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was to end torture and the government culture of impunity. The newly liberated people in these nations must not, cannot, continue the abuses that they fought so hard to overturn.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the revolutions are incomplete. Figures from the old regimes remain in power, and the cultures of government repression and police torture have not changed.

Libya may be a different story. The Libyan revolution was a hard and bitter fight compared to Tunisia and Egypt; but the upside of this may be that all regime figures have been swept away. Libya has an opportunity to build something new from the ground up.

One area in need of immediate attention is the justice system.

In new liberated Libya, more than 7,000 prisoners are being held in dozens of makeshift prisons. The men are packed into tiny, dingy cells where they remain without charges or trial, according to human rights groups and recent detainees. Some have been subjected to torture, according to reports.

I’m not saying that I don’t understand where this comes from. Libya is in a state of semi-chaos right now. The various prisons are being run by militias who fought for liberation. The militias are undisciplined and unregulated, while the prisoners they are guarding are former Gaddafi soldiers and mercenaries, many of whom committed atrocities. The militias’ anger is still fresh, and their desire for vengeance must run deep.

”Some of these [pro-Gaddafi] people raped, some killed. There was vandalism. They tortured us; they killed kids,” said Abdel Gader Abu Shaallah, who oversees two other makeshift prisons in Misrata.

But the liberators are no longer rebels. Libya is free, and the government must act quickly to bring all institutions under state control, and to make sure that abuses are stopped. No matter what crimes the prisoners are accused of, if torture is allowed to take place, then the liberators become little better than the government they fought so hard to replace.

Amnesty International issued a report in early October saying Libya’s new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace under Gaddafi. The NTC said it would look into the report.

Fortunately, the reports of torture seem to be isolated rather than systematic; and the resolve to end the abuses seems to be there. ”We joined the revolution to end such mistreatment, not to see it continue in any form,” Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril told Human Rights Watch.

Now what remains is to implement this ideal.

I call upon the Libyan government to act decisively to make their justice system fair and transparent; to clearly and strongly prohibit torture within their jails and prisons; and to punish (or at least remove from authority) anyone guilty of committing these abuses.

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Two Tortured Security Contractors May Sue – But It’s not Enough

Donald Rumsfeld

Under President George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld was one of the architects of the war in Iraq

Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel were private security contractors working in Iraq. They were employed in 2005 and 2006 by a company called Shield Group Security. At some point they became aware that the company was bribing Iraqi officials, and was engaging in illegal arms trafficking and other illegal activity. So Donald and Nathan did what any conscientious American would do. They reported what they had discovered to American officials in Iraq.

The next thing they knew, they were detained by U.S. military personnel, stripped of their belongings, handcuffed and fingerprinted, strip-searched and locked in a cage.

The BBC news reports,

They were then taken to Camp Cropper near Baghdad International Airport, where they experienced a nightmarish scene in which they were detained incommunicado, in solitary confinement, and subjected to physical and psychological torture for the duration of their imprisonment – Vance for three months and Ertel for six weeks…

The men claim they were deprived of sleep, food and water, held in extremely cold cells without warm clothing, and threatened with beatings.

They were ultimately released at the Baghdad airport and were never charged or designated security risks.

The men later sued former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, claiming that he created the policies that allowed them to be detained and tortured. The government challenged the suit, claiming immunity.

On August 8, 2011, a federal appeals court ruled that former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld had no immunity in the case.

“Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to show that Secretary Rumsfeld personally established the relevant policies that caused the alleged violations of their constitutional rights during detention,” the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Chicago, ruled in a 2-1 decision on Monday that upheld a decision by a lower US district court.

Not Enough

The court’s ruling is a welcome development, but it’s a miniscule step forward against a tide of violations of civil rights, torture and impunity. These two men are getting their day in court because they were American citizens and because their actions were noble. Therefore we look at the fact that they were tortured and we say, “How awful, they didn’t deserve that!”

But the truth is that no human being deserves to be tortured. Not an American accused of aiding the enemy, not an enemy combatant, no one. How many thousands of others have been tortured by American military forces, intelligence agencies and their clients? How many have been murdered in “extrajudicial killings”, how many have been quietly buried after dying in secret CIA-run prisons and other so-called “black sites”?

Are their lives worth less because they are not Americans? Is it acceptable to torture them because they are our political enemies?

Torture is inhuman. It has no place in this world. It must be ended, by all parties, under all circumstances, regardless of citizenship, regardless of circumstance.

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Waterboarding: a poem by Dr. Ingrid Mattson

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Islamic scholar, author, professor, and first female president of ISNA

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Islamic scholar, author, professor, and first female president of ISNA

Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Director of Islamic Chaplaincy Program, Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, and both the first female and first convert president of the Islamic Society of North America

By Ingrid Mattson

I used to love swimming underwater
Diving down deep
To touch mossy stones
At the bottom of the river
Holding my breath until air exploded
through tightly closed lips
And the rock bass swam away
Spiny fins glinting in the filtered sunlight

I used to love swimming underwater
Until Joey drowned
Dear sweet brother
Pulled down by the Kicking Horse River

For one year after that
I would panic

When the water from the shower
Dripped over my face
Fearing when I held my breath
That I would never breathe again

Sounds like fun
A vile euphemism
For making someone think he is drowning

About as fun as a kick in the ribs
A blow to the head
A shock to the genitals
Sodomy with a billy club

My 14 year old daughter saw the pictures
When she opened Yahoo to get her mail
She sobbed for three days
Her anxiety over cruel remarks from classmates
Now exploding into fully-formed terror
They could do this to us

But even worse
That anyone could do it
Her faith diminished

God can only be good
If there is some good in us
The faith of children
Treads water
Waiting for the life-guard in us

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Torture Produces False Information

Torture is immoral and ineffective. Research shows that torture damages the brain, resulting in memory loss, false confessions and misinformation.

Torture is immoral and ineffective. Research shows that torture damages the brain, resulting in memory loss, false confessions and misinformation.

Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin have found that torture and stress techniques used in interrogation compromise brain function and damage the parts of the brain where memory reside. This could result in the tortured person giving false information, confusing reality with fantasy, repeating the torturer’s assertions as fact, or simply saying what he thinks the torturer wants to hear in order to end the torture.

Shane O’Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, published his review in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Science. O’Mara examined the legal memos released by the U.S. government in April detailing U.S. “enhanced” interrogation techniques from 2002 to 2005. O’Mara says of the ten particular torture techniques that he studied, “they seem based on the idea that repeatedly inducing shock, stress, anxiety, disorientation and lack of control is more effective than standard interrogatory techniques in making suspects reveal information.”

Torture Produces Misinformation and False Confessions

However, O’Mara said it’s likely that such techniques will result in false information.

“In sum, coercive interrogations involving extreme stress are unlikely, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge, to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory,” he writes. “On the contrary, these techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function.”

“Waterboarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”

Professor O’Mara said contemporary neuroscientific models of human memory showed that the hippocampus and prefrontal cortices of the brain were very important.

The stress hormone, cortisol, binds to receptors in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex increasing neuronal excitability which compromises the normal functioning of the brain if it is sustained.

And other stress hormones called catecholamines could lead to an increase in blood pressure and heart rate which could cause long-term damage to the brain and body if they were maintained at a high level for a long time.

Other Researchers Agree

The BBC Online reports on this issue:

Dr David Harper, a clinical psychologist from the University of East London, said the study appeared to be consistent with previous research on memory and trauma and with evidence of previous torture survivors and those in the intelligence community critical of psychological torture techniques.

“Believers in coercive interrogation tend to believe that people will ‘tell the truth’ as a result but much evidence suggests that people will, in fact, tell those conducting the torture what they think will make the torture stop.

“This has been noted as a danger by commentators from the Spanish Inquisition, through the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s to the present day.”

Dr Stuart Turner of the Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law said: “There is now very strong evidence that torture and harsh interrogation techniques may disrupt normal memory processes.

“With this in mind, it is also unreasonable to expect torture survivors to be able to give consistent and complete accounts of their experiences.

“This is highly relevant, for example, to the process of decision making for asylum seekers, arriving in the UK seeking refuge and for whom credibility is often a central issue.

“It appears that O’Mara’s review paper supports the contention that to expect consistent memories in asylum applicants is unreasonable and therefore that inconsistencies should certainly not automatically be interpreted as evidence of fabrication.”

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BBC poll: World against torture, Israel in favor

An Israeli defense forces soldier points his gun at a Palestinian boy. Beatings, torture and illegal killings by the IDF are commonplace.

An Israeli defense forces soldier points his gun at a Palestinian boy. Beatings, torture and illegal killings by the IDF are commonplace.

Poll of 25 countries reveals that the majority of world’s population opposes torturing prisoners suspected of terror involvement. In Israel, over half of Jewish population supports using torture to get information from terrorists, while most Muslims oppose it.

Reprinted from Ynet, Published: 10.19.06

Nearly a third of people worldwide support the use of torture against terror suspects in some circumstances, a BBC survey suggests.

Over 27,000 people in 25 countries, including Israel, were asked if torture was acceptable if it could provide information to save innocent lives. Fifty-nine percent were opposed to torture, 29 percent replied it an acceptable means to combat terrorism.

Respondents were asked which position was closer to their own views:

a) Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights standards against torture.

b) Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives.

During a press conference held by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, actors demonstrate the Israeli Shin Bet torture method known as "Banana b'kiseh," where a detainee with hands and feet cuffed is painfully stretched, in the shape of a banana, over a chair by his jailer.

During a press conference held by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, actors demonstrate the Israeli Shin Bet torture method known as "Banana b'kiseh," where a detainee with hands and feet cuffed is painfully stretched, in the shape of a banana, over a chair by his jailer.

In Israel a majority of Jewish respondents in Israel, 53 percent, agreed that the governments should be allowed to use some degree of torture to obtain information from terror suspects, while 39 percent were completely opposed and wanted clear rules against it. However the Muslim population in Israel polled overwhelmingly against any use of torture.

58 percent against torture in US

And what do countries who have suffered terror attacks think? In the United States 58 percent oppose torture, 36 percent are in favor and 6 percent haven’t made up their minds yet.

In Britain, where a large scale terror plot was recently thwarted, 72 percent are against retrieving information from terror suspects through torture while 24 percent are in favor. Similar figures were apparent in Spain, where 65 percent oppose terror and only 16 percent condone it.

The poll was also conducted in Muslim countries. In Iraq, which suffers daily terror attacks, 42 percent are in favor of torturing terror suspects, 55 percent are against it. In Egypt the figure drops to 25 percent in favor and 62 percent against. The rest are undecided.

In three other countries, besides Israel, less than half the population polled against torturing terror suspects. In China – 49 percent were against and 37 percent were in favor.

In Russia, 43 percent polled against and 37 percent were in favor. In India, which has also suffered from terror attacks the data is intriguing – 23 percent are against torture and 23 percent are in favor of the tactic. The remaining 45 percent have yet to make up their minds.

Editor’s Note: there is no shortage of graphic photos of actual torture committed by Israeli defense forces and secret police, but I chose not to publish them there. I do think that such images should be published, but the reader should be warned first and given the option not to view them.

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Sister Ortiz Speaks Out: Fighting to End Torture

Sr. Dianna Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), an organization of torture survivors. An Ursuline missionary, Sister Ortiz survived the torture in Guatemala in 1989. She testified June 25, 2009 before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill.

Sr. Dianna Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), an organization of torture survivors. An Ursuline missionary, Sister Ortiz survived the torture in Guatemala in 1989. She testified June 25, 2009 before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill.

Published in Issue 6.14 of the Dartmouth Free Press

Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, is executive director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C. She was tortured in Guatemala in 1989 after spending two years there as a Catholic missionary teaching Mayan children. She is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.

Sister Dianna Ortiz came to speak at Dartmouth on Thursday, April 6, about her experiences as a victim of torture in Guatemala in’89. She was there as a missionary with the Ursuline order of nuns, teaching in an indigenous-populated village. After being abducted and interrogated, Sister Ortiz was burned with cigarettes, repeatedly raped, and endured many other horrors, including being forced to aid in the torturing of another prisoner. Although she suffered amnesia and still grapples with the painful memories she has regained, Sister Ortiz has chosen to speak out. The organization she founded, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, provides survivors themselves with a voice in the fight to end torture. Just before her speech at Dartmouth, she spoke with the Free Press about her beliefs and work.

DFP: Could you tell us about what was happening in Guatemala—what you were doing there, and what were the political circumstances that led to your torture?

Sister Dianna Ortiz: I went to Guatemala in’87. At that time, a civilian president had been elected, so I think there was this belief that the civil war in Guatemala had tapered off, and that the human rights violations were no longer as extensive as they had been in the past. And when I went, I think that I had that image in my mind as well. But when I arrived in Guatemala, it was evident there was a great deal of political violence––and a lot of silence, and I couldn’t understand why people were silent and not out there denouncing the atrocities being committed by their government, but now I understand. I [was in] San Miguel, a small town with an indigenous community, a very poor area [and] a lot of violence had occurred in that section of the country.

DFP: What were they trying to accomplish by torturing you, a nun?

SDO: That has been a question that I have asked for years… The people began to talk about some of the injustices that they were facing, and I remember from time to time the military would come to the village and then just pull young kids, young boys, off the streets, then take them to do forced military service. And the parents, the families would come to us and ask for assistance. We [the nuns] were familiar with some of the constitution of Guatemala, and that was a violation in terms of their rights, and so that could be one of the reasons. I was basically teaching children, and teaching them that they had basic rights, and when the children were adults, to recognize that they had basic rights and have the courage to speak out against the injustices. Maybe that’s one of the reasons, I don’t know.

DFP: Anti-torture activists often make the case that torture does not extract accurate and useful information, because victims will usually say anything to make the torture stop. So instead of getting actionable intelligence, the torturers get false confessions, incriminations of innocent people, and fabricated tactical information. Obviously, as a survivor of torture, you have a uniquely informed perspective on this. Does torture produce useful information, or can governments ever gain anything by using torture?

SDO: I don’t believe so. No. Torture doesn’t work… Under torture, a person will admit to anything, disclose anything, even if it’s false. Any information obtained under torture is not reliable.

DFP: Why do you feel there has been a lack of public knowledge about this practice?

SDO: I would not say it’s a lack of knowledge; I would say it’s denial, indifference, fear. Since 9/11, people around the country want to do whatever is necessary to protect our borders, and I’m not saying that we should not defend ourselves—it’s important to protect ourselves—but violence only begets violence, and torture is not the solution to this so-called War on Terror.

DFP: Do you think that the War on Terror can be successfully accomplished without torture?

SDO: I do. I believe in dialogue.

DFP: What is your response to those who argue that the destruction of one life is worth discovering information that will save thousands from a terrorist attack?

SDO: Torture can never be justified. Who is to say this person has a right to live, and this person doesn’t? It’s zero tolerance for torture, under any circumstance.

DFP: What is your position on the interrogations at Guantánamo Bay? In your view, do any of the questioning tactics used there constitute torture?

SDO: It is torture. Period. People may not often see interrogation as a form of torture, but it is a form of torture. I don’t want to go back to my experience, but I think about when I was detained, and my torture began with the interrogation. And the good cop/bad cop image. The use of instruments in my situation — cigarettes were used as part of the interrogation — so when I hear the word interrogation, I immediately identify it with torture. I would say a majority of survivors also identify interrogation with the beginning of their torture.

DFP: Do you feel that it is just as wrong as torture as it is employed elsewhere? Or is it different, lesser, or somehow justifiable?

SDO: It’s similar. For instance, this concept of refining torture—saying that torture really isn’t torture. For instance, right now they talk about waterboarding, shackling, [IRFing], and they say it’s not torture.

DFP: Do you think the U.S. needs to reassess its definition of torture?

SDO: I don’t believe so. There already is a definition. It’s almost like opening a Pandora’s Box—we could say we’d need to redefine every law that exists.

DFP: You’re the director of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), an anti-torture group “founded by and for torture survivors.” Could you tell us about your organization, its mission, and successes?

SDO: Our organization is comprised of torture survivors from around the world. Our main objective is to work towards the abolition of torture. We believe the voices of survivors are [some of the most] important voices in the campaign to end torture. I’m not sure I would call this a success, [but] when TASSC first started, we were a pocket of six people, and [soon] were over 200, and that doesn’t include family members. I say that I question that that really is a success, because I think it really reveals the severity of the problem of torture in today’s world.

DFP: What obstacles does TASSC encounter when working to achieve its goals?

SDO: Well, first of all, I think that sometimes people look at torture survivors as fragile, unstable; and I would not say that we’re not fragile. We are, but there’s also resilience. We are committed to working towards the abolition of torture, not for any political reason. We believe that no one should be subjected to torture. In my dealings with our numbers, I have never heard survivors wish torture on their torturers.

Another obstacle is people often say to us that we’re not being realistic, that it’s impossible to abolish torture. We are of the belief that it is possible. We may not see the abolition of torture in our lifetime, but maybe the next generation. I often think of a friend of mine who was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and he often says to me: when he was a child, and he saw his parents working to bring about change during the Civil Rights movement, that he always questioned if it was going to make a difference. And today, when he looks back, he sees the accomplishments. It’s not perfect, but the idea is to plant a seed. The seed begins to germinate, and hopefully produces good fruit, in this case, the abolition of torture. Maybe it will be just one government to say they will not use torture, but this is a success.

DFP: Obviously your experience drove you to become an energetic anti-torture advocate. How else did it affect your life?

SDO: Torture has tainted every part of my life. Just earlier, the tape recorder [used by the DFP interviewers to record interviews] took me back to Guatemala. Even asking questions, that takes me back. I identify questions with interrogations, so I have to say to myself, Dianna, you’re not there, you’re here.

I’m not the same person I was. I was a teacher. I hope that someday…well, I feel that I am probably more aware of the injustices, the oppression that exists in the world, and I am sad to say that such an experience as torture opened my eyes to the reality. I have more compassion for people who suffer various types of trouble, never comparing pain, accepting people [as] they are.

DFP: How do most survivors of torture cope?

SDO: I don’t think there is a definite one answer for that. Each person deals with his or her torture the best way that he or she can. I think that we share a common language… we sometimes refer to our survival skills as “transitional survival skills,” for instance, to leave the light on at night, drinking coffee, staying away from people and sites where perhaps cigarettes are being used. Some people get involved in human rights. I think that has been the case with a number of our members. Some go out and speak. It takes an emotional toll for folks. There are some survivors who don’t even want to deal with it, and try to live as normal a life as possible. Then there are those who do take their lives.

DFP: How can we better empower other torture survivors to speak out?

SDO: Providing forums, I think, is one way. We do believe that the voices of survivors are vital in this campaign to abolish torture. Empowering survivors means also treating them like they’re human, and not feeling sorry for them. Sometimes there’s a tendency for that. We always say we don’t want sympathy—we want people to wake up. See the world through our eyes, even though I don’t believe that is possible. To see that torture is the plague of the 21st century.

DFP: Why do you speak out?

SDO: I believe that it is my moral obligation to speak about the issue of torture, about what I witnessed and experienced, but I also made a promise to those who were with me in the torture chamber that if I survived I would speak, and tell the world exactly what I had witnessed in the clandestine prison. So I am committed to that promise, every day I renew that commitment. Sometimes I feel like I’m not sure I can do it today.

DFP: Thank you very much, Sister.

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Growing up in Guantanamo – Mohammed Jawad is Released

Guantanamo prison must be closed

Guantanamo prison must be closed

Mohammed Jawad was just released from the United States’ Guantanamo prison and sent home to his native Afghanistan. How old is this fearsome terrorist, who has been imprisoned for seven years without charges or trial? Nineteen years old.

That’s right. I’m sure you can do the math. Mohammed Jawad has been illegally imprisoned at Guantanamo since he was twelve years old.

It’s hard to know what to say about this. This is the nation that claims to be a leader of the free world, and whose constitution guarantees a fair and speedy trial to its citizens? Are non-citizens subhuman, then?

Shouldn’t all human beings be accorded certain fundamantal rights, regardless of nationality or religion? Shouldn’t the right against arbitrary imprisonment be one of them? And shouldn’t children be treated with extra care and protected from harm? Aren’t these fundamental principles of human decency?

Mohammed was accused of injuring two US soldiers and their interpreter by throwing a grenade at their vehicle. However, much of the case against him had been ruled inadmissible by a US military judge in 2008.

Mr Jawad’s release was ordered last month by US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle, who described the US government’s case against him as “an outrage” that was “riddled with holes”.

What Future Awaits Mohammed?

During a time when he should have been in school studying reading and writing, mathematics and science; or playing football, or learning to play an instrument, or learning a trade and helping to support his family; he has instead been imprisoned under cruel and inhumane conditions, held in a cell 22 hours a day, and barred access to his family. Not only has his childhood been stolen, it has been replaced with a nightmare.

Now he has been returned to a nation that is unsafe and politically unstable. What future awaits him? What help will he get for the psychological trauma he has experienced? How will he make up for the time he has lost? Has he been given any compensation? (No). Will he receive any assistance, any professional guidance, or even a simple apology? (No).

Guantanamo prisoners blindfolded, bound and forced to kneel

Guantanamo prisoners blindfolded, bound and forced to kneel

Harsh Conditions and Torture at Guantanamo

And the outrage continues. 254 prisoners, almost all Muslim, continue to be held at Guantanamo prison in cruel and inhumane conditions. In addition to the harsh everyday conditions of their confinement (small cells with no natural light, no educational opportunities, no family contact), many prisoners have been systematically tortured.

An FBI report released in 2007 as part of a lawsuit involving the ACLU revealed that captives at Guantánamo Bay were chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor for 18 hours or more, urinating and defecating on themselves.

Besides being shackled to the floor, detainees were subjected to extremes of temperature. One witness said he saw a barefoot detainee shaking with cold because the air conditioning had bought the temperature close to freezing.

On another occasion, the air conditioning was off in an unventilated room, making the temperature over 38C (100F) and a detainee lay almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been pulling out his hair throughout the night.

On another occasion, an agent was asked by a “civilian contractor” to come and see something.

“There was an unknown bearded longhaired d (detainee) gagged w/duct tape that had covered much of his head,” the FBI document said.

When the FBI officer asked if the detainee had spit at interrogators, the “contractor laughingly replied that d had been chanting the Qur’an non-stop. No answer how they planned to remove the duct tape,” the report said.

Omar Khadr, a youth detained at Guantanamo prison
Omar Khadr, a youth detained at Guantanamo prison

Three British Muslim prisoners, known in the media as the “Tipton Three”, who were released in 2004 without charge, alleged ongoing torture, sexual degradation, forced drugging and religious persecution.

Omar Deghayes alleges he was blinded by pepper spray during his detention. Juma Al Dossary claims he was interrogated hundreds of times, beaten, tortured with broken glass, barbed wire, burning cigarettes, and sexual assaults.

There is much more. Defacement and abuse of the Quran has been a frequent tactic. As a result of all this, there have been four suicides and hundreds of suicide attempts by prisoners. Many are reported to be suffering from severe psychological stress to the point of losing their sanity.

In 2008 a video was released of an interrogation between Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer and Omar Khadr, in which Khadr repeatedly cries, saying what sounds to be either “help me”, “kill me” or calling for his mother, in Arabic.

Khadr is another youth held in Guantanamo, a Canadian citizen and formerly an alleged child soldier who at the time of his capture in Afghanistan was blinded in one eye by shrapnel, then shot in the back twice by American soldiers as he kneeled. Charges against him have been dropped three times, and the Canadian government has failed to request his extradition in spite of a ruling by the Federal Court of Canada that the government must do so.

President Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo prison by 2010. We’ll see. So far it does not look promising. Human rights organizations have demanded its closure for years with no result. However, positive changes in the treatment of prisoners have been made in response to media attention and the demands of human rights organizations. Please add your voice to the weight of pressure demanding better treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.

Please take action on this matter:

Click here to demand that Admiral David M. Thomas improve conditions at Guantanamo.

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Abolish Torture Without Exceptions

Imam Dawud Walid

Imam Dawud Walid

The following statement was recently issued jointly by the Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs, Imam Dawud Walid and Rabbi Robert Dobrusin. It was published in the Detroit News.

The Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, Imam Dawud Walid is executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Michigan and Robert Dobrusin is an Ann Arbor rabbi.

Abolish Torture Without Exceptions

The recently released White House legal torture memos call us as religious leaders to speak out against torture.

The memos authorize slamming detainees into walls, placing them in “cramped confinement” in coffin-like boxes and placing insects in the confinement box. The memos say “the use of waterboarding (a form of simulated drowning) constitutes a threat of imminent death.” Nevertheless, they authorize its use.

These practices violate core teachings of our different traditions, as well as the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

As religious leaders, our primary concerns are moral and spiritual, but we are also concerned about the practical issues of torture.
Some people support torture, believing that it will make them safe. Torture will not keep us safe. It puts us more at risk.

Torture does not provide sound intelligence, and there are more reliable ways to get information. Brad Garrett, the former FBI special agent who repeatedly obtained uncoerced confessions from terrorist suspects, explains “If we want the intel, there are approaches that will render the information without torture.”

What’s worse, torture puts U.S. citizens and Americans abroad at greater risk. As 38 retired military leaders, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explain, “If degradation, humiliation, physical and mental brutalization of prisoners is decriminalized or considered permissible … we will forfeit all credible objections should such barbaric practices be inflicted upon American prisoners.”

We need to face the truth about U.S.-sponsored torture. That is why we call for an impartial, nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry to study to what extent our interrogation practices have constituted torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Likewise, the United States must hold itself to the same standards that we expect of other countries. It is shameful that the torture memos authorize practices that the memos themselves admit the State Department condemns in other countries.

In the face of this double standard, we support “Golden Rule” to prohibit any treatment of detainees that we would not accept for U.S. detainees. This simple teaching we instill in our children is also a sound basis for our government.

There are often divisions between religious groups and conflict between religious and secular groups. Opposition to torture is an issue that unites. More than 25,000 people of all faiths have signed the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s “Statement of Conscience” calling for America to “abolish torture now — without exceptions.” They stand with secular groups such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Torture does not make our country or the world safer. It puts us at greater danger. Moreover, torture is wrong. Now is the time to investigate and to legislate. Now is the time to end torture forever.

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British MPs propose “Torture Damages Bill”

Binyam Mohamed is a British citizen who was tortured overseas with M15 collusion

Binyam Mohamed is a British citizen who was tortured overseas with alleged MI5 collusion

In a welcome development a committe of British Members of Parliament has declared that victims of torture should be able to file suit in British courts against the foreign governments that tortured them.

The committe, called the Joint Committe on Human Rights, has called on the British government to take the lead in this area and set an example for other nations. They rejected objections that foreign governments traditionally enjoy immunity and that such a move would increase international tensions, saying that those considerations are secondary to justice and the rehabilitation of victims of torture.

The report stated: “The practical questions of foreign relations, enforcement and litigation procedure are important, but they are secondary to the issue we are examining, which is: should there be a civil remedy available in the UK to victims of torture at the hands of foreign states?

“We are of the strong opinion that there should. Such an action would be in line with our positive responsibilities towards torture victims under international law.”

It also said that the UK should expand international law so that victims get the reparations they are entitled to.

The committee’s chair, Andrew Dismore, is having his Torture (Damages) Bill reintroduced into the House of Lords. It was approved there last year but then stalled in the Commons.

That is such a breath of fresh air! Of course a statement by a single committee does not guarantee legislation or action, and the committee’s statments have been rejected by the UK Ministry of Justice, which responded that,

“The government has considerable sympathy with the motivation behind the Torture Damages Bill and with the situation of people who have been victims of torture.

“This bill could not work in practice and would not provide any practical benefit to victims of torture. In addition, it would place the UK in breach of its obligations under international law.”

Still, it’s always good to hear someone speaking out for justice. Torturers must be held accountable, and if their own governments will not take action (or if the governments are the torturers) then let them at least be held accountable somewhere else.

I think it should go further. Let their assets be seized, let them be tried in absentia, let them become isolated and imprisoned in their own homelands, unable to travel for fear of prosecution. All these dictators who travel to Europe for entertainment, gambling and medical care, let them become pariahs, unable to travel out of their countries.

We are Barbarians – Part One

As long as torture continues to exist in the world, we are barbarians. As long as torture exists, humanity cannot claim to have achieved any level of civilization. We are no further along than when when we worshipped kings as gods, practiced slavery, burned women for witchery, and died of diseases like tuberculosis and the plague. All that we have accomplished as a species, all the technological innovation and scientific learning, is meaningless as long as human beings continue to suffer in dark and hidden cells, beaten and electrocuted and quietly disappeared, while the rest of us go about our daily lives as if nothing extraordinary has happened.
On December 10, 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 5 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”[6] Since that time a number of other international treaties have been adopted to prevent the use of torture. Two of these are the United Nations Convention Against Torture, adopted on December 10, 1984; and for international conflicts the Geneva Conventions III and IV.
The convention against torture has been ratified by 145 nations. In addition, the domestic laws of most countries outlaw torture.
And yet, Amnesty International estimates that at least 81 world governments currently practice torture, some openly.
The Ineffectiveness of Torture
The Inhumanity of Torture

A fifteenth century tribunal using ropes to elicit a confession in this engraving from a painting by A. Steinheil. This method of torture is still in common use today.

A fifteenth century tribunal using ropes to elicit a confession in this engraving from a painting by A. Steinheil. This method of torture is still in common use today.

We are Barbarians

by Wael Abdelgawad

As long as systematic, government-practiced torture continues to exist in the world, all of us are barbarians. As long as torture exists, humanity cannot claim to have achieved any level of civilization. We are no further along than when when we worshipped kings as gods, believed the earth to be the center of the universe, practiced slavery, burned women for witchery, and died of diseases like leprosy and the plague. Torture is no less backward and primitive – in fact it is worse – than any of those.

We have landed spacecraft on Mars, mapped the human genome, and with medical advances we are on the verge of curing age-old diseases such as cancer, alzheimers and parkinson’s. Hey, in Japan they have heated toilets, so that you don’t have to sit on a cold toilet seat in winter. A four-foot robot named ASIMO climbed the steps and rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. On Google Earth you can view satellite images of any city around the world. My palm-sized external hard drive holds hundreds of gigabytes of data, enough to fill a small library. Hooray for progress!

And yet scores of nations around the world commonly torture and murder people for expressing political thought, committing petty crimes, for suspicion or association, or just belonging to the wrong ethnic group.

All that we have accomplished as a species, all the technological innovation and scientific learning, is meaningless as long as human beings continue to suffer in dark and hidden cells, beaten and electrocuted and quietly disappeared, to be dumped in trenches and unmarked graves, while the rest of us go about our daily lives as if nothing extraordinary has happened, not bothering even to speak out, to contact our leaders and legislators, or to write to our media to express our outrage. So-called first-world governments go to war over resources, but consider genocide and torture to be insufficient reasons to bother even with sanctions. Maybe because they too are guilty.

What Progress Have We Made?

For hundreds of years now, human leaders and intellectuals and condemned and spoken against torture.

Johann Graefe in 1624 published Tribunal Reformation, a case against torture. Cesare Beccaria, and Italian lawyer, published in 1764 “An Essay on Crimes and Punishments”, in which he argued that torture unjustly punished the innocent and should be unnecessary in proving guilt. Torture was abolished by Frederick the Great in Prussia in 1740. Italy followed suit in 1786, followed by France in 1789 and Russia in 1801.

On December 10, 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 5 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Since that time a number of other international treaties have been adopted to prevent the use of torture. Two of these are the United Nations Convention Against Torture, adopted on December 10, 1984 and eventually ratified by 145 nations; and for international conflicts the Geneva Conventions III and IV.

In addition, the domestic laws of most countries outlaw torture.

And yet, Amnesty International estimates that scores of governments around the world currently practice torture, some openly.

An article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal points out that (emphasis added by me):

Amnesty International’s Annual Report of 1999 provides the following statistics relating to torture and ill-treatment: in the sub-Saharan African region, some thirty-three countries provide evidence of torture or ill-treatment by state operatives, and twenty countries are implicated in deaths attributable to torture, ill-treatment, or negligence through inhuman and degrading prison conditions. In the Middle East and North Africa, at least eighteen countries reveal evidence of torture or ill-treatment, and at least eight countries show evidence of deaths resulting from torture, ill-treatment, or inhuman and degrading prison conditions. In Europe, there were reports of people tortured or ill-treated by state operatives in some thirty-one countries; death in custody is confirmed or suspected in at least six countries. In the Americas, twenty-one countries practice torture or ill-treatment, and deaths attributable to torture or inhuman and degrading prison conditions occurred in at least six countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, at least twenty-two countries report torture or various forms of ill-treatment by state operatives; deaths from ill-treatment or torture are indicated in at least eleven countries.

Statistics on torture show that during 1998, no less than 125 countries reportedly tortured people. Furthermore, torture or ill-treatment, lack of medical care, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading prison conditions resulted in deaths in fifty-one countries. These statistics are quite shocking considering that torture and ill-treatment are most often committed by governmental officials, who knew or should have known that the law prohibited their acts of torture or ill-treatment. Even more disquieting is the knowledge that the practice of torture is often among the least transparent aspects of governmental policy and practice. Amnesty International’s numbers may simply reflect the tip of the iceberg.

The Evolution of Modern Torture

In 2000, human rights group Amnesty International and African social sciences organization CODESRIA published a handbook for watchdog groups monitoring prisons where torture is suspected. The book lists the most common forms of torture used today (the following summary has been largely reprinted from an article at

  1. Beatings. One study (published in the Danish Medical Bulletin in 2006) of 69 refugees found that 97 percent of survivors reported being beaten at the hands of their captors. Beating torture can be as simple as punching, slapping or kicking a victim. Beatings may come spontaneously, or in conjunction with other methods. Tibetans held in Chinese prisons in the 1980s and 1990s reported suffering combinations of torture, including beatings and electric shock [source: Government of Tibet in Exile]. Beatings may also be delivered via instruments like hoses, belts, bamboo shoots, batons and other blunt weapons.
  2. Electrotorture. Electric shock torture methods haven’t been around as long as many other widely used methods — humans didn’t figure out how to harness electricity until the late 19th century. Once established, however, electricity soon came into use as a method of torture. Electrical shocks can be delivered using stun guns, cattle prods and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) devices. This type of torture can be as crude as introducing a current to a victim via a cattle prod or other device designed to deliver a shock attached to a car battery. Shocks are used as a torture method because they’re cheap and effective. One 22-year-old Chechen survivor recounts being tortured with electricity at the hands of Russian military personnel: “They gave me electric shock under my fingernails and under the nails of my little toes so later I had to have the nails removed from my fingers and toes” [source: Amnesty International Danish Medical Group]. What’s more, shocks leave behind little obvious physical trace of the agony they produce. One expert suggests, “Torturers favor electric torture because it leaves no marks other than small burns that, one can allege, were simply self-inflicted.”
  3. Sexual Assault. Rape is a common form of torture, especially during wartime. Rape of men, women and children has occurred during conflicts across the globe. In the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Muslim Bosnian women were subjected to systematic rape at the hands of Serb soldiers. In the Congo, from 2000 to 2006 alone, more than 40,000 women and children were raped [source: The Guardian, “The Spoils of War”, March 2006]. In Rwanda in the early 1990s, an estimated 25,000 women were raped. Soldiers reportedly told their victims that they were “allowed to live so that [they] will die of sadness” [source: The Guardian].  Both men and women may suffer sexual assault. Whether the assaulter uses his or her body to inflict harm or brandishes a device to penetrate the victim’s body, the act is constituted as rape. What’s more, experts believe estimates of the number of men who’ve endured rape torture are low: “Men tend to underreport experiences of sexual violence. They may have doubts about their sexuality and fear infertility, and both sexes commonly experience sexual difficulties following sexual violence and may need reassurance about sexual function” [source: Burnett and Peel,].
  4. Hanging by Limbs. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong employed a form of torture called “the ropes.” In “Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam,” the book’s authors describe this type of torture many American servicemen faced after capture, explaining, “Although there were many variations of this torture, it usually took the form of tying the elbows behind the back and tightening them until they touched or arching the back with a rope stretched from the feet to the throat” [source: Wilson, et al]. The tension created in the muscles by this extreme tightening –exacerbated by hanging victims from their limbs — can cause lasting nerve damage. Dissident Turkish national Gulderen Baran was tortured by police when she was in her early 20s. In addition to other forms of torture, she was hung by her arms, both on a wooden cross and from her wrists bound behind her. Baran suffered long-term damage to her arms, losing strength and movement in one arm, and the other suffering total paralysis [source: Amnesty International].
  5. Mock Executions. A mock execution is any situation in which a victim feels that his or her death   — or the death of another person — is imminent or has taken place. It could be as hands-off as verbally threatening a detainee’s life, or as dramatic as blindfolding a victim, holding an unloaded gun to the back of his or her head and pulling the trigger. Any clear threat of impending death falls into the category of mock executions. Water boarding, the method of simulated drowning, is an example of mock execution. The U.S. Army Field Manual expressly prohibits soldiers from staging mock executions [source: Levin]. But reports of some U.S. military members staging these executions have emerged from the Iraq War. In 2005, one Iraqi man questioned for stealing metal from an armory was tortured by being asked to choose one of his sons to die for his crime. When his son was taken around a building, out of the man’s sight, he was led to believe that the son had been executed when he heard gun shots fired. Two years earlier, two Army personnel were investigated for staging mock executions. In one circumstance, an Iraqi was taken to a remote area and made to dig his own grave, and soldiers pretended he would be shot [source: AP]. Other nations also make use of mock executions. The effects of such threats on the victim’s life are deep and lasting: The Center for Victims of Torture say torture victims who’ve undergone mock executions reported flashbacks, “feeling as if they’ve already died,” and said they begged their tormentors to kill them to avoid further constant threat.

Regarding number four, hanging by limbs, this reminds me of a report by Human Rights Watch on torture in Egypt. I read the report last year. Egypt is of particular interest to me because I am of Egyptian origin, though I have never lived there.  HRW describes beatings, rape and hanging by limbs as the most common forms of torture in Egyptian police stations. Victims are often hung by their arms from the top of a door, with a bag of cement tied to their feet to stretch them out and cause extreme pain. Torture has become ubiquitous in Egypt and is carried out with total impunity. Egyptian police have become experts at torture and are often borrowed by other Arab nations to teach torture methods.

This is something that Egypt shares in common with my nation of citizenship, the United States, which has also innovated many torture techniques and taught them to nations throughout the world. In fact, as far as I know, the USA is the only nation to set up an actual school of torture for police and military of other nations (the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia, renamed but still in operation).

Darius Rejali wrote in an article in the Boston Globe on December 16, 2007, titled “Torture, American style”:

For centuries, the whip was the preferred tool of state torture, and some were nastier than others. The Great Russian Knout, for example, had a hook on the end of it that tore out chunks of flesh with each blow. Even the Nazis, well into the era of modern torture, favored whips, as they scarred their way across thousands of victims in prisons and concentration camps during World War II.

In recent times states have outlawed open spectacles of torture, and torture has ceased to be an exhibit of kingly power. But its basic uses remain the same: extracting information, forcing false confessions, and keeping prisoners docile and compliant.

So torture hasn’t really disappeared in the modern age. What have disappeared are forms of torture that leave marks. The police, military investigators, and governments in democratic societies can count on the press and people watching. They know that if a prisoner can’t show any marks of torture, people are far less likely to believe his or her story. So as societies have become more open, the art of torture has crept underground and evolved into the chilling new forms – often undetectable – that define torture today.

Rejali goes on to describe how sophisticated and ubiquitous electroshock torture has become, and the central role that Western democracies (particularly the United States and France) have played post-WWII in innovating non-scarring forms of torture that are easier to hide, and teaching those methods to allied governments. These include electrotorture, forced standing for extended periods, waterboarding, psychological tortures, and sexual abuse.

Torture is not an isolated crime occuring in one or two backward nations. It is not restricted to petty dictatorships and banana republics. It is not associated with one particular economic system (e.g. communism vs. capitalism or the free market), one particular ethnic group, or one particular religion. It is a pervasise and systematic global crime, committed both secretly and openly. It is a global shame, a shame upon the entire human race.

The ancient Romans, who routinely employed torture and often savagely whipped victimes with barbed lashes prior to crucifixion, would have been proud of us. The ancient Egyptians, who employed sun-death; the ancient Jews, who used stoning; the Dominican friars of Spain who were notorious for their torture innovations during the inquisition; all would have nodded their head in approval of today’s torture techniques.

You are a barbarian. I am a barbarian. Until systematic, condoned torture is abolished once and for all, and relagated to the dark days of the past like slavery and the bubonic plague, we are all savages. We are still in the Dark Ages. Future generations will look back and see us as a primitive and beastly people, and they will be right.

These problems are not unsolvable. We are a species with intelligence and the ability to be compassionate. We have to come to an agreement that torture is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Leaders who condone it should be voted out of office (in democratic nations), and replaced with leaders who do not tolerate torture and can apply pressure to those nations that do, rather than work with them clandestinely to perpetuate it. Those who commit torture should be prosecuted. We need to join and support organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

These problems can be solved but it requires commitment and determination on our part. And it won’t happen overnight.

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