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October 15, 2011

Torture at Guantánamo

Reuel S. Amdur

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Doctors, psychologists, and other mental health professionals either turned a blind eye to evidence of torture at Guantánamo or actively assisted. That is what Doctors Vincent Iacopino and Stephen Xenakis found in a review of records for nine prisoners. Their findings are published in PLoS Medicine.

Iacopino, who serves as senior medical advisor to Physicians for Human Rights and teaches at the University of California School of Public Health, has had a distinguished career in the field of human rights internationally.  He has worked in defining human rights violations and in documenting violations.  In that capacity he served as a consultant to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Xenakis is a retired US Brigadier General and a psychiatrist. 

All of the nine were in Guantánamo in 2002 and had been there for an average of seven years.  They had endured torture and ill treatment for months and in some cases years.  Each had experienced at least five forms of abuse, up to eleven.  The forms included “sleep deprivation, temperature extremes, serious threats, forced positions, beating, and forced nudity.”  Severe beatings were “often associated with loss of consciousness and/or bone fractures.”  Other forms of abuse included “sexual assault and/or the threat of rape, mock execution, mock disappearance, and near asphyxiation from water . . . or being choked.” 

Among complaints by prisoners were instances of having one’s head forced into the toilet and being used as a human mop. While the authors did not provide names of the prisoners on whose behalf they were investigating, Omar Khadr said that he had been used as a mop to clean up a puddle of his own urine mixed with pine oil.  In fact, Xenakis did examine Khadr and gave testimony on his behalf.  Finally, there were instances of desecration of the Qu’ran.

Of the nine cases, the medical records indicated two cases of contusions, three of fractures, two of sciatica, two of lacerations, and one of peripheral nerve damage.  In no instance was a cause cited.  One inmate with a back problem said that he saw the interrogators examining his medical records while forcing him into painful stress positions for long periods.

While records on admission to Guantánamo showed no past personal or familial psychological history, eight of the nine were found by Guantánamo medical staff to have significant symptoms while in the camp.  Seven were diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder, but there was no indication that doctors at the base asked patients about the precipitating factors.  The two authors of this report identified the mental health issues as including nightmares, suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide, depression, visual and auditory hallucinations, anxiety, claustrophobia, problems with memory and concentration, and dissociative states, where a person feels disconnected from self and/or surroundings.  One man with some of these symptoms was told “to relax when guards are being more aggressive.” 

Iacopino and Xenakis call for a full investigation of the abuse at Guantánamo, “including relevant classified information.”  According to the British paper The Independent, Iacopino said that “In the case of individuals who aided or abetted torture, or knowingly neglected to document torture, then at the minimum they should have their license removed, but they should also be subject to adjudication under the rule of law.”

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