Torture is a modern threat

January 09 2003 | by

Contrary to what one might expect, torture is still widespread in many countries across the world. What can we do to prevent it? One way might be to convince our governments to stop trade with nations which permit torture

By Duncan Forrest

I don’t know how many times I was beaten, but my skin was swollen and torn. The skin peeled off. I don’t know if I bled, because I could not see. I only saw my feet twelve days later when they took my blindfold off. When I looked at my feet the skin was peeled off and I could see the red layer underneath. This is not a description from the past, but the testimony of a victim beaten on the soles of the feet under interrogation in a modern, ‘democratic’ state.

Many people associate ‘torture’ with medieval practices that have long been outlawed. While this is true of many countries, it is an uncomfortable fact that over a hundred and fifty countries world-wide have been shown within recent years to commit systematic and deliberate torture on their own citizens. Organisations such as Amnesty International have been formed to investigate and campaign against it; centres such as the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in London, the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims in Copenhagen and others around the world, have been set up to repair the physical and psychological damage suffered by the survivors.

A brief history of torture

Torture has probably occurred as long as one man has sought power over another, and hideously cruel punishment and revenge is described from the beginnings of recorded history. Judicial torture was employed in ancient China, Egypt and Assyria, but it is not described in Biblical texts.

When we come to Ancient Greece and Rome, we find that the testimony of slaves in criminal cases was not considered reliable unless extracted under torture. It was not employed on freemen, however, until late in the Roman Empire. St. Paul was exempted from flogging because he was a Roman citizen, (Acts 22:22-29).

The early Christian church does not appear to have encouraged torture. St. Bernard of Clairvaux stated: Faith must be the result of conviction and should not be imposed by force. By the eleventh century, however, heretics were being subjected to torture to force them to recant.

It was not until the Age of Enlightenment that torture came to be seen to be not only morally offensive but also inefficient and was outlawed in one country after another, beginning with Sweden in 1724. The revelations of the atrocities of the third Reich which triggered the formation of the United Nations also prompted the UN to formulate definitions and policies on torture, culminating in the UN Convention against Torture in 1984. Most countries are signatories and are therefore bound by its rules, but, although there is a Special Rapporteur on Torture who reports annually, the UN has no power to force compliance. The Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which is still in preparation, is designed to fill this gap and give the UN more teeth.

Why torture?

What are the motives for torture? They are many. The traditional concept is that it is used to elicit a confession or obtain the names of accomplices in a crime. In many countries, this is still a major motive, even though it has repeatedly been shown that coercive methods do not always reveal the truth. False confessions are easy to obtain from susceptible individuals and often lead to miscarriages of justice. In some countries, of course, truth is not important. What is needed is to obtain a scapegoat with a neat confession to produce at a show trial.

Though torture is a very clumsy weapon when used to obtain a confession, it must be admitted that when it is employed on a large scale it is a most effective method to subdue whole populations or dissident minorities. There are many countries where resistance to the government has been completely suppressed by torture, murder and ‘disappearance’ of everyone brave enough to speak out against oppression. Most commonly targeted are rival politicians, lawyers, journalists and health and welfare workers. It is very tempting for a beleaguered government to resort to a ‘state of emergency’ in which all normal checks on lawful detention, interrogation and judicial supervision are removed or at least slackened. Though the decision to ‘fight terrorism with terror’ may not be spelled out, this is what it amounts to. The inevitable result is to raise the temperature of the rebellion and induce a reciprocal reign of terror on the part of the rebels, who then commit human rights abuses that are just as inhuman as those of the regime they are fighting.

Most disturbing of all is the revelation, well documented, that torture and terror has been deliberately planned. In Bosnia, before the fighting, there was a deliberate training programme for a campaign of rape, torture and killing. In Rwanda, a local radio announced, To destroy big rats you must kill them when they are small.

Methods of torture

The techniques of torture vary throughout the world. Some methods are universal: beating with a variety of batons, whips and sticks, rifle butts and boots. Sometimes equipment is specially made but at other times anything that comes to hand is enough. Whips are made of motor fan belts or electric cable. Truncheons are made from lengths of plastic tubing filled with sand or cement. A length of rope is all that is needed to cause extreme pain by trussing up or suspending the victim. Some methods of suspension are ingenious, with nicknames such as Palestinian hanging, the trussed chicken, the parrot’s perch, five point suspension. Holding the head under water or foul liquid to the point of drowning is widely practised. A variant is near-suffocation by putting a plastic bag over the head. In the Middle East, falaka (beating the soles of the feet) has a long history. In India a heavy log is rolled up and down the thighs with one or two policemen standing on it. Or the legs are stretched apart until the muscles in the groin begin to tear. Cigarettes are stubbed out on the skin.

Modern science has provided many new opportunities. Electric shocks are a favourite. They can be administered by a magneto, such as is standard equipment in Turkish police stations. Or shocks can be delivered directly with mains electricity from a plug on the wall. Recently, there has been a growth in the use of electric shock batons, originally designed for crowd control, but ideal for torture. China manufactures, and uses widely in jails, a pattern copied from a British model. In one Middle Eastern country, a set-up nicknamed ‘The House of Fun’ subjects the victim to unbearably loud ‘white noise’ and flashing light. The British manufacturers boast that it will reduce a detainee to madness in half an hour.

Though the physical pain and destruction of torture can be appalling, many survivors claim that the psychological effects of isolation, relentless interrogation, threats, humiliation, seeing or hearing loved ones being tortured, or mock execution can be the most horrifying elements in their detention.

The torturers

Most people imagine that only an inhuman, sadistic monster would practice deliberate torture, but this has many times been shown to be untrue. Apparently ordinary men (and a few women) can easily be recruited and are often eager to assist their superiors in subduing what they believe to be outsiders, dangerous threats to the authority, not ‘one of us’, untermenschen. Experiments by Milgram in the USA in the 1970s showed clearly that the majority of individuals brought in off the street to assist in a scientific experiment could easily be persuaded to administer what they thought were painful and life-threatening electric shocks to subjects who gave wrong answers to questions. They thought that, since they were taking part in a scientific experiment in a prestigious institute, they had to obey the white-coated instructor.

In Greece, during the regime of the Colonels, training of torturers was deliberate and carefully planned. Obedient, conformist peasant recruits were taken to special training camps, dehumanised by beating and humiliation, made to believe that they were an elite group protecting the country against communist subversives, and gradually introduced into the techniques of interrogation which they then enthusiastically practised.

Treating torture victims

Torture often (but not always) destroys the victim physically and mentally. The saying that Once tortured, then tortured for life is not always true. Certain individuals, strongly motivated by religion or political conviction, have been shown to have been strengthened and empowered by the experience of long detention and torture. (See, for example, the interview with Fr. Zef Pllumi of Albania in the September edition of the Messenger - Ed.)

Nevertheless, many survivors of torture desperately need help to mend their shattered bodies and come to terms mentally with what has been done to them. There are now almost a hundred centres world-wide, some of them in countries such as Turkey, China and Pakistan where the practitioners work in constant danger of being themselves arrested or harassed for helping what are considered to be enemies of the state.

Though complete cure may not be achievable, it is always possible to give some relief. The psyche and the soma are closely linked. Easing of the physical pain contributes to mental rehabilitation and vice versa. Even simple, basic physical treatment can have a profound healing effect. Many torture victims have suffered their experiences alone and have never described their suffering to anybody, not even their family. This is particularly true where there has been sexual abuse. Many rape victims have never told their spouse of their humiliation. It often takes months of gentle counselling before such details emerge.

Campaigning against torture

Though many countries in which torture is endemic have courageous organisations which protest, conduct peaceful demonstrations and attempt to change the conduct of their government, they are usually ruthlessly suppressed. Their greatest hope is that they may win international notice which will shame their government into reform. An example is Burma where the leader of the democratically elected National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, would certainly not have survived without her high international profile which makes it politically risky for the military dictatorship to eliminate her.

Amnesty International has for 30 years pursued the apparently vain policy of asking its members to write polite letters to heads of governments, Ministers of Justice and the Governors of prisons, asking them to stop torture, release prisoners of conscience or at least grant them a fair trial. Contrary to expectations, this technique sometimes has dramatic effects. Though some dictators are immune to international disapproval and probably just tear up the letters unread, others appear to be sensitive to condemnation and release prisoners, sometimes bring torturers to trial and occasionally even dismiss and discredit officials.

Amnesty International UK is at present conducting a campaign to stop torture by encouraging letter-writers to lobby their government to stop trade with torturing countries and to discourage tourism with countries such as Turkey and Burma, both of whom are making strong bids for tourism in the hope of improving their image abroad. As a support for this campaign, a new book A glimpse of hell: reports on torture world-wide is published by Cassell (ISBN 0-304-33515-0).

Updated on October 06 2016