Doctors who torture

April 10, 2009

Torture can’t happen without doctors.

The point of torture is not to kill. As a former CIA lawyer once said, “If a detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”

The point of torture is to inflict pain. And only doctors can determine how to suffocate without drowning, how to beat without doing too much damage, how to torment without killing.

How horrifying to read “Health Provision and Role of Medical Staff” in the recently leaked International Committee of the Red Cross report (PDF) on the U.S. torture program:

For certain methods, notably suffocation by water, the health personnel were allegedly directly participating in the infliction of the ill-treatment. In one case, it was alleged that health personnel actively monitored a detainee’s oxygen saturation using what, from the description of the detainee of a device placed over the finger, appeared to be a pulse oxymeter. For example, Mr Khaled Shaik Mohammed alleged that on several occasion the suffocation method was stopped on the intervention of a health person who was present in the room each time this procedure was used.

Other detainees who were shackled in a stress standing position for prolonged periods in their cells were monitored by health personnel who in some instances recommended stopping the method of ill-treatment, or recommended its continuation, but with adjustments.


As well as the monitoring of specific methods of ill-treatment, other health personnel were alleged to have directly participated in the interrogation process. One detainee, who did not wish his name to be transmitted to the authorities, alleged that a health person threatened that medical care would be conditional upon cooperation with the interrogators.

The report goes on to explain the medical ethics all physicians must follow:

Medical ethics are based on a number of principles which include the principle of beneficence (a medical practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient – salus aegroti suprema lex), non-malefiance (first do no harm – primum non nocere) and dignity (the patient and the person treating the patient have the right to dignity).

So much for those medical vows the doctors at Guantanamo took.

And this report didn’t come from left wing partisans, but rather from one of the most neutral, objective and meticulous watchdogs in the world, the Red Cross. The report was never meant to be leaked. It was intended only for a few individuals within the U.S. government. There was no reason to fabricate, exaggerate or misstate any of the facts.

The details uncovered in the report rely on the testimony of 14 “high value detainees”. Shouldn’t we uncover all of it, interview more than just 14 detainees, but all detainees and U.S. government employees and other staff involved?

Don’t you want to find out how doctors allowed themselves to partake in torture? Don’t we have a duty to make sure this never happens again?