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“Broken Laws, Broken Lives”: Medical Study Confirms Prisoners in US Custody Were Physically & Mentally Tortured

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A new report by the Physicians for Human Rights has, for the first time, found medical evidence corroborating the claims of former prisoners who say they were tortured while in US custody. Teams of medical specialists conducted physical and psychological tests on the former prisoners, including exams intended to assess if they were lying. We speak to Dr. Allen Keller. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As Congress convened hearings this week on the Bush administration’s use of controversial interrogation techniques, a new human rights report released yesterday has for the first time found medical evidence corroborating the claims of former prisoners who say they were tortured while in US custody.

The 130-page report, “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” was published by the group Physicians for Human Rights. It is based on the evaluation of eleven men formerly held in US prison camps overseas between 2001 and 2004. Four of the men were captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, and seven were held in Iraq. All were released in recent years, and none was charged with a crime. Teams of medical specialists conducted physical and psychological tests on the former prisoners, including exams intended to assess if they were lying.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement accompanying the report, retired Major General Antonio Taguba, who led the Army’s first official investigation on Abu Ghraib, said the new evidence suggested a “systematic regime of torture” inside US-run prison camps.

Dr. Allen Keller is a medical expert for the Physicians for Human Rights study. He evaluated five of the prisoners, co-wrote the report. He’s director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, joining us also here in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

DR. ALLEN KELLER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Keller, tell us about the five people you interviewed. What did you find?

DR. ALLEN KELLER: Well, I can even speak to the broader all eleven. So, my colleagues and I — and in each evaluation we did, we had both a medical and a mental health professional conduct detailed evaluations over the course of two days. And what we found was clear evidence of physical and psychological abuse and with devastating health consequences. Individuals reported being exposed to a variety of torture and abusive methods, including beatings, prolonged exposure to extremes of cold and heat, sexual humiliations, forced isolation, standing for extended periods, and with devastating health consequences.

And I think, as was alluded to earlier, there is a profound disconnect between these sanitized terms, such as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “torture lite” — whatever you want to call it, it’s torture, and we shouldn’t be doing it. And when we examined these individuals, we found clear evidence, both physical and psychological, of what they endured. And as a result of what they endured, they had lasting physical and psychological scars.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you examine them?

DR. ALLEN KELLER: So we conducted, first, detailed interviews, including a past medical and psychological history, trying to assess what their baseline was prior to their imprisonment, then a detailed history of the reports of abuse that they described. Subsequently, psychological evacuations were conducted, and then physical examinations were done. And then, when needed, radiographic studies were done. So very intensive evaluations done in accordance with international protocols, particularly the Istanbul Protocol.

And so, the evidence that we found was clear, whether it was scars consistent with having been shackled in painful positions or descriptions of nightmares, of continued profound feelings of humiliation. So the pain and suffering continues long after the abuse stopped.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The report — some of the men you mention, portions of what they have suffered have come out in different reports in the past, but I don’t think the detail and the extent that you have. I just wanted to read a couple of graphs of some of the individuals you mention.

One was Amir, a salesman in the Middle East who was captured in Iraq in 2003. Besides the sleep deprivation and the other things you also mention, I want to read this part. It says, “At first, he was not mistreated but then was subjected to religious and sexual humiliation, hooding, sleep deprivation, restraint,” so on. He says Amir recalled experiencing — he was placed in a foul-smelling room and forced to lay down in urine, and while he was hit and kicked on his back and side, Amir was then sodomized with a broomstick and forced to howl like a dog while a soldier urinated on him. After a soldier stepped on his genitals, he fainted. In July 2004, he was transferred to the prison at Camp Bucca, where he reported no abuse. And then, this was at Abu Ghraib that this happened.

Another prisoner, Yussef, who was captured in Afghanistan, talked about being subjected to electric shock from a generator, feeling, quote, “as if my veins were being pulled out.” So this was really not only borderline examples of torture; this was actual physical torture that was occurring here against some of these men.

DR. ALLEN KELLER: Absolutely. And it’s important, though, to note, you don’t necessarily have to lay a glove on someone for it to be torture. Sleep deprivation, all of these, quote, “enhanced” interrogation methods have devastating health consequences.

And regarding the testimony of those individuals in the information we got, I think several things also speak to their credibility. They were very forthcoming with us about when they were treated well, when they were not, what physical and psychological symptoms they did have and did not, and were forthcoming about even, you know, scars, of saying, “Oh, this was unrelated to my abuse.” You also assess their affect during the evaluations, and then based on the physical and psychological evaluations, you make an assessment.

My colleagues and I who conducted these evaluations have years of experience in doing such evaluations. And so, we were highly confident of the credibility of these individuals and the pain and suffering that resulted from their torture and abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Allen Keller, how did it compare — you’ve treated people from eighty countries for torture. How did these prisoners compare who were tortured in US custody?

DR. ALLEN KELLER: The forms of abuse that we learned of, that we documented, are as bad, if not worse, than any I’ve heard from anywhere around the world. We arguably, tragically, are second to none in these techniques that have been used. It doesn’t mean that in countries it’s not used with much greater frequency, but I think this has actually really important ramifications.

It’s important to note that most torture survivors around the world are not terror suspects. They’re civilians. They’re Tibetan monks, speaking out for freedom in Tibet. They’re African student activists peacefully promoting democracy. And we have made the world a much more dangerous place for these individuals by condoning these methods.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the American Psychological Association, how important do you think it is that they haven’t banned members for participation?

DR. ALLEN KELLER: Right. Well, first, I’m a member of the American College of Physicians as a general [inaudible] and proud that they’ve taken a strong stance on this. I believe it’s crucial that the American Psychological Association do so, as well. The notion that a health professional in the room somehow lends protection is ridiculous. And in fact, to the contrary, I think it makes it more dangerous. It enables the interrogator to think, well, maybe they can go a little further. And I think there are pressures on the health professional, that like, well, should I really be speaking out? And, by the way, in our study, we did find several very disturbing reports of participation of health professionals, including mental health professionals, in the abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Dr. Allen Keller is director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. He is speaking about the report that he and his colleagues did, “Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by US Personnel and Its Impact,” a report by Physicians for Human Rights. We will link to it at our website. Also, Dr. Steven Reisner, presidential candidate to head the American Psychological Association. That final vote will take place in October, after the annual meeting of the APA that will take place in Boston this summer.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to speak to an editor at McClatchy Newspapers about a report they did: “Guantanamo: Beyond the Law.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Before we move to McClatchy Newspapers, I wanted to ask Dr. Allen Keller one last question. You did say that there was participation by health professionals in some of the torture, that former prisoners revealed this to you. Who revealed it? Who was involved?

DR. ALLEN KELLER: Well, we heard very disturbing examples. For example, one individual detained in Guantanamo reported that, for example, while he was held in a room exposed to extremes of heat and cold, a health professional who he believed was a doctor would come and monitor his vital signs, never stopping the abuse — clearly a violation of medical ethics and participation in torture. This same individual also described how he spoke to a psychologist about his feelings of sadness and loneliness and worry about never seeing his family again. And subsequently, the interrogations that immediately ensued entirely changed their tones and focused in on that vulnerability, leading him to believe, and I believe as well, that this individual shared that information with the interrogators — again, clearly a violation of professional ethics.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he name the psychologist?

DR. ALLEN KELLER: He didn’t know who the psychologist was. I believe they had their names covered with tape, if I’m not mistaken, but he did not know who that was.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Allen Keller, thank you, and we will continue, of course, to follow this story.

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McClatchy Interviews 66 Fmr. Prisoners Held by US, Finds Widespread Abuse and Wrongful Imprisonments

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