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Physicians for Human Rights Statement on New York Times “How U.S. Torture Left Legacy of Damaged Minds”

For Immediate Release

In the following statement, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) responds to the New York Times’ latest reporting on the U.S. torture program:

Today’s New York Times article on the legacy of U.S. torture is yet another step forward toward learning the sordid details of that program. Unfortunately, this information is available not because the government has decided to come clean – it is available because of the persistence of dedicated journalists.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has long documented that health professionals played a key role designing and implementing the U.S. torture program, giving the illusion of cover to government lawyers who were intent on undermining the absolute prohibition against torture and ill–treatment. In addition, PHR experts have documented neglect and concealment of medical evidence of intentional harm at Guantánamo.

The new article substantiates what PHR has previously shown: the profound mental harm of U.S. torture on detainees in CIA and military custody. In designing this program, the CIA and military ignored extensive data of psychiatric issues from former U.S. prisoners of war who returned from Vietnam where they had suffered torture and ill–treatment. This data demonstrated the serious mental harm – not only of being imprisoned, but of being tortured. It also substantiates that health professionals charged with providing medical and psychological care to detainees in Guantánamo neglected psychological symptoms suggestive of intentional harm and routinely failed to ask about the cause of their symptoms – a direct result of a system that demands that medical personnel, in violation of their ethical duties, act with the interest of the CIA or Department of Defense, not of the patient.

For example, the article details one former detainee who was provided antipsychotic medication with a side effect that was then exploited by an interrogator, who was informed by the prescribing psychiatrist. This kind of abuse occurred as a result of health professionals breaching their ethical duty to do no harm and to provide medical and psychological care to those in need.

“This latest revelation of the scope, pervasiveness, magnitude, and utter unlawfulness of this so–called ‘enhanced interrogation’ program and related practices should be a wake–up call to the administration. That acts of sexual violence including rectal feeding, sexual taunts, forced nudity, aggressive body cavity searches and use of diapers were routine, belies any claims that these actions were lawful or justifiable. They are the very epitome of torture and ill–treatment,” said PHR’s medical director, Dr. Vincent Iacopino.

“This history will almost certainly be repeated unless there is full accountability for the torture program and related violations, starting with full disclosure. Until that time, the United States’ respect for the rule of law will remain in question. And there will be no healing until there is justice and remedy for the victims and accountability for those responsible,” said Iacopino.

The United States has surrendered any moral high ground it may have inhabited prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But to be a global leader, the United States must earn back that moral high ground by acknowledging that in its design of a global war on terror, it has severely undermined hard won, long–established human rights and humanitarian law norms and it is civilians around the world who have suffered. Some have suffered directly at the hands of the United States and others because their governments saw that if they designated someone a terrorist – all bets were off.

The United States must start rebuilding its integrity and start close to home by acknowledging the extent to which it has promoted torture and ill–treatment, engaged in unlawful renditions, maintained a system of indefinite detention, including in black sites around the world, and imposed blanket secrecy around these actions. Once that information is available, the U.S. Department of Justice must initiate investigations and prosecute those responsible for these crimes under international law. Anything less undermines the capacity of the United States to challenge unlawful behavior by other states, including using torture, defending extrajudicial killings, and fueling conflicts where civilians are demonized and then targeted.

Finally, in addition to the need for the U.S. government to comply with its legal obligation to provide justice and redress for the victims, there must be accountability of health professionals for their role in the U.S. torture program, a crisis of integrity. That people who are bound by ethical standards to at a minimum, “do no harm” – a pretty low bar – managed to undermine that standard and deliberately design a program of torture aimed at inflicting maximum damage to the physical and mental integrity of detainees is unconscionable. This cannot stand.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

Deputy Director, Media & Communications1.917.679.0110

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