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Physicians Report on Torture: A Questionable Case

Why didn't the press ask Physicians for Human Rights about how weak most of their evidence of torture by Americans turned out to be?

by
Bob Owens

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June 21, 2008 - 10:08 am

Despite claims uncritically repeated in some media outlets, medical examinations of 11 former detainees of U.S. military prison facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba advanced by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) do not provide open-and-shut examples of prisoner abuse. Instead PHR offers up one-sided accounts based largely upon allegations made by former detainees to an organization with a predefined political agenda and financed in part by Bush Administration opponent and convicted felon George Soros and his group, the Open Society Institute.

Of the eleven former detainees interviewed by Physicians for Human Rights, eight had been captured and abused or wounded in combat prior to be taken into U.S. custody, making it difficult to determine if injuries uncovered during physical examinations were the result of preexisting conditions or whether they were sustained after being transferred to American custody. Two of these eight detainees were picked up and interrogated by local forces sometime after being released from U.S custody but prior to their examinations, also leading to the possibility of post-custodial abuse before PHR’s physical and psychological reviews.

Six detainees were exposed to psychological trauma or had psychiatric issues prior to U.S. detention, including one subject that had attempted suicide twice. Several claimed physical problems resulting from abuse completely unsupported by the examinations, including one detainee claiming that he had a heart attack that later tests did not support, and another one blaming ill-fitting clothing for genital swelling. One experienced nothing that could reasonably be described as torture, suffering only abusive language and a temporary delay in medical care.

While prisoner abuse and torture have occurred during the War on Terror and have been well documented, the report by (PHR) was not a peer reviewed document and contained errors, obfuscations, and repeated charges unsupported by the evidence collected. Despite how it has been portrayed in the media, the PHR account is far from being an objective or conclusive document, as even the report’s authors are occasionally forced to admit:

It is possible that allegations of torture and ill-treatment made by the former detainees were affected by recall bias and/or intentional exaggeration or misrepresentation for personal and/or political gain. PHR could not independently investigate and corroborate all statements made by the former detainees in this report, nor assess the consistency of the detainees’ accounts. Due to logistical and security reasons, PHR was unable to obtain either 1) corroboration from any of the former detainee’s family members concerning post-detention health and functioning, or 2) prior medical records to determine prior history. Where possible, PHR sought to corroborate the former detainees’ allegations with external sources. The detention medical records of one individual and the independent medical evaluation of another former detainee were used to corroborate their accounts. Media sources and released US government investigations on allegations of detainee abuse were used to corroborate accounts by two other former detainees.

The evaluators have no baseline medical history to know if any of the 11 detainees had preexisting problems either prior to being held in American custody or afte. Instead they had an independent post-detention medical evaluation for a single detainee, and the detention medical history of another. Without pre-detention baseline readings, the claims of the detainees are little more than hearsay uncritically republished by a public policy advocacy group.

The individual cases have many data points pointing towards abuse and perhaps even torture, but such findings are not conclusive, as a review of the individual cases reveal.

“Kamal”
Captured in his home in September, 2003, he was sent to Abu Ghraib, tortured until November of 2004, released to prison tent city, and claims to have had a heart attack that was untreated (a claim that tests do not support). He was released in June, 2004. He was picked up again by Iraqi Police in January of 2005, during which time he was not tortured, but sometimes was not allowed food, water or access to toilet during prison lockdowns. Was also insulted by guards. He was released a second time in October of 2006. Physical evidence is “consistent” with the allegations, but not in any way definitive as far as proof of torture. Nor is there evidence that shows these healed wounds occurred during captivity and not in the more than 40 years of his life previously. Psychological testing shows evidence of depression, PTSD, anxiety, etc. There was no testing of his reported hearing loss.

“Hafez”
Captured November 2003 while in his 50s, he was sent to Abu Ghraib for seven months where he was tortured. Friends were reported killed by Americans during the 1991 Gulf War which made him “profoundly sad, perhaps giving him motive to exaggerate or falsify his testimony. He was injured in a 1998 bombing he attributed to the American military, giving him a second reason to carry a grudge (side note: time frame during so-called “No Fly Zone War,” when coalition aircraft typically only fired at anti-aircraft missile and radar sites, making his claims of no prior military service questionable). He claims soldiers robbed his home of money and valuables, but provides no evidence. Once again physical evidence was “consistent” with his torture claims but not definitive. He also claimed that wearing an ill-fitting suit led to genital swelling. The evaluator’s analysis admits that they were unable to determine if his psychological issues were related to his detention, if he had a pre-existing condition, or if these issues were the result of post-detention factors.

“Laith”
He was arrested October 2003, sent to Abu Ghraib, and released in June 2004. In his mid-40s, he served in the military, and was wounded fighting Iran during the 1980s. He claims he was tortured in first 35-40 days of captivity. He was diagnosed a diabetic while in Abu Ghraib, and is under medical treatment for the condition. Once again, physical evidence is “consistent” with his claims, but not definitive. Oddly, he claims he wasn’t sodomized, but shows anal scarring consistent with penetration. He claimed cigarette burns on chest but no scarring was evident. Evaluation revealed other undefined physical evidence unrelated to his arrest and detention, but these injuries, and how they are accurately separated by the evaluator from detention-era injuries is unexplained. Psychological testing indicates PTSD and severe depression, in addition to an admission of alcohol abuse. Evaluators insist his physical and psychological symptoms show he was sodomized, even though he continues to deny it.

“Yasser”
In his mid-40s, he was arrested, detained, and abused in the 1990s by Iraqi forces. He claims he suffered no physical or psychological damage from that seven-month detention, yet he claimed one unnamed preexisting condition prior to his arrest that went untreated. He suggests only the later U.S. detention at Abu Ghraib after his October 2003 arrest caused his permanent damage. He claimed he was transported by a “tank” after arrest, but as U.S. tanks do not have a layout consistent with the prone transport he describes, he was likely referring to a Bradley IFV. He was released in February of 2004 and exhibits scarring “consistent” with electric shock, but the evaluator does not provide evidence that can confirm if this happened during his U.S. detention rather than during the seven months he was held prisoner in the Saddam era. He alleges multiple acts of brutal sodomy, but brief exam did not show physical evidence consistent with this claim. Psychological testing showed signs of depression, PTSD, and related symptoms.

“Morad”
In his late 50s, he was arrested September 2003, detained for ten months and released in July 2004. Physical abuse was far milder than other claimants, as was claimed psychological abuse. He was treated with insulin (apparent diabetic) during the course of his incarceration after informing captors of his condition. Harsh language and delayed medical treatment seem to be his only claims. Based upon his relative physical and psychological well-being, I fail to see why he was included in a report alleging torture.

“Rahman”
Captured in October 2003, he was detained in Abu Ghriab and released in May, 2004. In his early 40s, he claims he was brought in for questioning by authorities in 1989 and 1994 during Saddam Hussein’s reign , but denied any abuse occurred at that time. He claimed his torture was unique from other claimants, in that there was far more use of immersion in cold water and having cold water thrown upon him, along with the hitting and kicking that seemed common among most of the men interviewed. He was “taken away” by Iraqi secret police and detained for 18 days in summer of 2006, but refuses to discuss the experience. The two prior confinements and secret police detention that he refuses to discuss once more makes physical and pyschological evidence of abuse no less valid, but difficult to ascribe to just one of his four incarcerations.

“Amir”
He was arrested in August of 2003 and remained imprisoned until January of 2005. Claims of physical abuse included forced running in addition to more typical claims of being hit, stress positions, and loud noise. He was transferred to Abu Ghraib in September of 2003, where he endured physical and sexual abuse. Was transferred to Camp Bucca in July 2004 where he suffered no ill treatment, and was released in November, 2004 after being transferred back to Abu Ghraib for two days before being released. This is inconsistent with previous claimed release date of January of 2005. Did the Physicians for Human Rights report writers mean two months, or two days in Abu Ghraib before release? If this report had been adequately peer-reviewed (or even fact-checked), such an obvious discrepancy would like have been caught before official publication. Physical and psychological examinations showed evidence of injuries “consistent” with his claims.

“Haydar”
He claims to have been captured in turn by the Taliban, Afghan forces, and the U.S. Military in Afghanistan in October or November of 2001. He was held in both Kandahar, and Guantanamo Bay until mid 2004. He had several psychological issues before his detention and attempted suicide twice before going to Afghanistan. The report apparently described delousing procedures upon arrival at Kandahar but did not explain it was a community health issue and not torture. The evaluator twice described the insertion of a finger into the anus upon arrival at both Kandahar and Guantanamo Bay. This was probably part of a medical evaluation for new arrivals or a search for contraband. The report is unclear on that point. He states he was abused and threatened with dogs shortly after arrival and claims he was at one point pepper-sprayed, though he does not explain why he was sprayed. He abused himself by slamming his head against his cell door and was medicated with Zoloft. When released to his home country, he was “interrogated extensively” by local police, but claims no abuse at their hands. A physical examination shows missing teeth consistent with beatings he says he suffered, and physical scarring, some of which he attributed to abuse. A total body scan conducted by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) “revealed no evidence of abnormalities.”

“Adeel”
Captured in Pakistan by Pakistani soldiers in May of 2002, he was kept for nine days in a Pakistani Intelligence safe house and claims he was not abused by them. He was sent to Baghram and later to Guantanamo Bay and was released in the fall of 2006. Once again, in-processing, including a fully body search common in all domestic prisons, was described as abuse, as was communal showering. Torture and abuse consisted of constantly being shackled, beatings, humiliations, and loud music. He refuses to provide details, but claims “somebody touched him in a humiliating manner” during a prison transfer, which could reasonably be construed as part of a search for contraband. Physically, he shows evidence of eardrum perforation and infection and other indicators of poor hygiene and restricted movement, along with an undiagnosed skin discoloration.

“Youssef”
Detained on the Pakistani border in late 2001 or early 2002, he was held and abused at a Pakistani prison before being transferred Kandahar and Guantanamo Bay. He was released in November of 2003. He claims physical abuse in the form of beatings at Kandahar, and electrocution by being pushed against a generator on on occasion. He was kept at Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay where he claims beatings were common for small infractions, though he suffered no permanent damage. While at Camp Delta, he reported no beatings, but was exposed to temperature extremes and loud music. He accused the camp psychologist of abusing doctor/patient privilege, as interrogators used his stress of missing his family against him after he shared his feelings with the psychologist. Physical evidence of abuse was minimal, and he admitted that some psychological distress existed before his capture, though it was exacerbated during his confinement.

“Rasheed”
Captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, he was incarcerated in Bagham, Kandahar, and Guantanamo Bay before his fall 2006 release. A convert to Islam, he was previously arrested on terrorism charges in his home country, and was beaten. He was was allowed to leave prison only on the condition that he would be expelled from his home country. He claims to have been a refugee for months before the nation in which he lived dumped him in Afghanistan. He claims he was captured by bandits, and sold to the Northern Alliance as a prisoner. He says he was beaten and had a medical procedure without his consent (later determined to be a hernia repair by Guantanamo Bay staff). After being transferred to Guantanamo Bay, he claimed that he faked psychological symptoms to avoid continued abuse, but the effort only led to him being heavily medicated. He claims he was still beaten on more than 300 occasions at Guantanamo Bay. Unique among the subjects, “Rasheed” provided Physicians for Human Rights with a copy of his 1,200 page Guantanamo Bay medical file that indicated his heavy prior use of alcohol and drugs and a family history of psychiatric issues. Examination of his musculoskeletal system as reported by PHR did not show extensive lingering injuries a layperson might expect in a survivor of 300 beatings.

Physicians for Human Rights goes on in their report to make other accusations and suggestions, but considering that that these conclusions are based upon questionable claims and political objectives, further review was pointless.

Bob Owens blogs at Bob-Owens.com.
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