Report details medical evidence of detainee abuse


A report from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)?has found that the United States has engaged in torture at its detention facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay.

Farnoosh Hashemian, a research associate at PHR, and Nathaniel Raymond, Senior Communications Strategist with PHR, discussed the findings of their report titled “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” at a panel discussing on Friday, October 17, sponsored by the Human Rights Program. PHR’s report, which is available online at, was largely based on interviews with eleven former detainees between December 2006 and September 2007. It details practices that the U.S. has used on detainees in the War on Terror to bring about long-lasting pain, terror, humiliation, and shame.

One of the most challenging aspects of PHR’s project was finding detainees who were willing to talk about their experiences and be subjected to medical examinations. After 7 months, PHR had secured consent agreements from 11 subjects; all of whom the organization claims were wrongfully detained from 2001-2003. Seven of the subjects were detained in Iraq at Abu Ghraib and four were arrested in Afghanistan and transferred to the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay.

In two cases, they consulted previous medical records-in other cases, they followed internationally recognized procedures for physical and psychological examinations. Hashemian remarked, “One of the reasons why this report got widespread attention was these medical evaluations.”

PHR encountered significant resistance to medical evaluations. “These individuals were tortured by Americans and asking them to sit down with an American clinician to discuss their agony was difficult.” Indeed, in one case a former detainee who had been repeatedly sodomized at the hands of American soldiers was unwilling to undergo a complete physical exam.

Hashemian, the lead author of the report, discussed how the rise of the “U.S. torture regime” was developed through a systematic program in which the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense “reverse engineered” the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program used by the U.S. military to prepare troops to withstand and survive torture by enemy forces that do not respect the Geneva Conventions. This “reverse engineering” led the U.S. to develop torture tactics that were theoretically impossible to prepare for.

The “torture regime,” as Hashemian described it, was supported by the White House and the Department of Justice, who legally approved the regime proposed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. At the same time, there were some tactics that high level administrators likely never knew existed, such as threatening detainees with bringing in their spouses and forcing them to watch them be raped by U.S. troops. As Hashemian said, “The door to torture is the door to floodgates. When you open it you cannot contain it.”

Hashemian summarized the report’s findings, which included that detainees held abroad, “repeatedly and over many months were subjected to physical and psychological torture,” including sodomy, electric shock, and sleep deprivation. Each of these conclusions was supported by medical evidence.

Another distressing element of U.S. policy was that health professionals were present and involved in abuse. Hashemian stated that doctors failed to provide medication, failed to report injuries, and forcefully injected detainees. Instead of upholding their Hippocratic responsibilities, doctors were enlisted to push the limits of what humans could physically and psychologically endure. That line, Raymond stated, was frequently run roughshod over, as over 130 detainees had died in U.S. custody.

One graphic example underscored the medical profession’s complicity with the torture regime. One detainee who was captured by bounty hunters in Afghanistan in 2002 was beaten severely while in U.S. custody at Bagram Air Base. He was subject to sensory deprivation and more beatings at Kandahar. After his transfer to Guantánamo, he was subject to sensory bombardment, isolation, and lengthy interrogation. The result was a total mental breakdown within a month of arriving at Guantánamo. Medical records describe how he banged his head against walls, engaged in hunger strikes, and wrote S.O.S. on the walls in his blood. The medical professionals on site treated his depression, Hashemian stated, but did nothing to stop the torture.The horrors experienced by the detainees did not end when they left U.S. custody.

Hashemian said, “Most of the detainees to this day…suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. They’ve lost their livelihood, and their families have been shattered.”

Far from being recognized as victims of American aggression, the former detainees retain the stigma of being detainees. Hashemian stated that many medical clinics are unwilling to serve the former detainees because “they are terrorists and they will lose other patients.”

Hashemian concluded by citing the words of Maj. General Antonio M. Taguba (USA-Ret.), who stated, “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

Raymond addressed the issue of accountability by describing the chains of command used by the U.S. and what steps the next administration should take to preventRaymond described the command structure as “including medical professionals, Judge Advocate Generals, law enforcement personnel, and intelligence officers in multiple chains of command.” This convoluted and complicated command structure led few, if any individuals to direct responsibility for All personnel are supposed to be responsible for alerting their superiors about known violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, “from a colonel to a cook.”

A Presidential Directive issued on September 15, 2001, which established “jointness” between CIA and DOD, further obfuscated the chain of command. Raymond said that the close relationship between CIA and DOD permitted a space where each organization could evade responsibility for torture.

Despite Raymond’s strong call for accountability, he acknowledged the desire of the American people to turn the page. “We have an economy that is tanking, two wars going on, trillions in deficits,” Raymond said, “but only with accountability will…the honor and the values the uniform has represented once again be projected back to the world.”

Moreover, Raymond postulated that the continued vitality of the torture regime is a strategic disaster for U.S. national security. Torture, he claimed, prevents the intelligence community from obtaining sensitive information and jeopardizes the Justice Department’s ability to use evidence gained from interrogation to indict terrorists responsible for 9/11 and other attacks on U.S. nationals. Indeed, instead of torture, the panelists urged the U.S. to build relationships with detainees, as it did during World War II. In support of this proposition, Raymond cited the example of “Fort Hunt’s quiet men,” who were able to secure important information about German plans for the Battle of the Bulge by playing ping-pong and chess with the detainees in order to gain their trust.

Attaining a complete narrative of what the government has done is also key to ensuring adequate reform. For example, Raymond referenced George Marshall’s testimony before Congress following the end of World War II. Marshall was brought to Capitol Hill to explain how Pearl Harbor was vulnerable to attack and the failure of the U.S. intelligence community to detect the Japanese plot in advance. That commission led to a series of national intelligence reforms.

Many of the questions from audience members focused on the methodology of accountability. Hashemian advocated reparations for detainees
who were tortured and Raymond added that accountability must include a formal apology from the U.S. government.

Accountability, if there is any, will almost certainly have to come from the political branches. Hashemian noted that two Iraqis are part of a lawsuit against a contractor who worked at Abu Ghraib, but that the possibility of these lawsuits being successful is “slim.”

Raymond also noted the continued important of the media in keeping the issue of torture before the eyes of the American people. “You can beat up on the American media until the cows come home on this story. This is a million times worse than Watergate…But at the same time, while you beat then with one hand….you also have to give them amazing credit. Without the media and without a group of eight to ten journalists we would still be in the dark. They took amazing risks.”

Raymond concluded the discussion, stating, “We are excited about this report as an engine for accountability.”

Disclosure: The author’s sister is Outreach and Constituency Organizing Director at Physicians for Human Rights. She had no role in the creation of the “Broken Laws, Broken Lives” report.

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