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A systematic process learned from Cold War

By Paul Vallely
14 May 2004

Experts in torture are not surprised by the details in the stories of abuse which continue to emerge from US-run prisons in Iraq. And the more that emerges, the less it seems to be the work of a handful of sadists or perverts. Rather they are in line with sophisticated techniques of modern torture.

At the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in London, which has dealt with tens of thousands of torture cases over the past three decades, one of its senior staff, Sherman Carroll, said yesterday: "The idea of it being 'a few bad apples' won't wash. It looks increasingly like a systematic process. And there have clearly been conscious attempts by psychologists to make the techniques culturally relative to a Muslim population," he added, referring to reports of enforced nakedness, the simulation of oral sex, forced masturbation and naked human pyramids which seemed calculated particularly to offend followers of Islam.

The techniques, which rest on principles of psychological disorientation rather than inflicting physical pain, were pioneered in Russia and China after the Second World War. They included humiliation, hooding, disorientation and depriving prisoners of sleep, warmth, water, food and human dignity. The KGB and Chinese secret police passed them on to the North Koreans who used them on Britons during the Korean War.

British military intelligence applied similar methods in colonies such as Kenya, Aden and Cyprus. They were carried over to Northern Ireland, too. In 1970 a unit from the British Army's intelligence wing deprived 12 IRA suspects of food and sleep, placed hoods over their heads and forced them to lean against walls with only their fingertips while playing into their ears a piercing high-pitch screech of "white noise". When the incident became public, the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the practices were inhumane, degrading and unlawful. Edward Heath's government banned the techniques in 1971.

In these years, when the Cold War rather than terrorism was the main threat to the West, the tide turned against torture. In 1984 the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was enacted. The international community, with the US State Department at the head, set up operations to monitor torture. The State Department still produces annual reports, with Burma, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey being censured in the latest.

But although both the UK and the US signed up to the convention, both continued to train selected military personnel in them. At Ashford, Kent, and at a former US base at Chicksands, the tactics are used to train soldiers who may be captured behind enemy lines. In R2I - resistance to interrogation - training a strict 48-hour time limit is imposed. Stripping naked and sexual humiliation is part of the system of ill-treatment and degradation.

But in 1997 it became clear that the United States employs such techniques on its enemies. Then two CIA interrogation manuals became public. They spelt out the theory that detention should prolong the shock of capture by disrupting the things on which the prisoner's sense of identity depends: continuity in surroundings, habits, appearance, relations with others. "Detention should be planned," one manual says, "to enhance feelings of being cut off from anything known and reassuring."

Psychological rather than physical pain is more effective, one manual says: "The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself." Threats trigger fears more damaging than pain itself. Actual pain often produces false confessions, whereas psychological pain undermines the prisoner's "internal motivational strength".

In June last year President George Bush denied that the US was using torture, in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay or Iraq. But on Wednesday his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, admitted that sleep deprivation, dietary changes and stress positions were being used.

Pentagon lawyers, according to the US pressure group Human Rights Watch, have drawn up a 72-point "matrix" of acceptable stress, including: stripping prisoners naked, subjecting them to bright lights or blaring noise, hooding them, exposing them to heat and cold (from 110F to 10F), and binding them in uncomfortable positions. The more stressful techniques must be approved by senior commanders, but all are permitted. The lawyers' advice, and the matrix allowing "graduated levels of force", are being kept secret. It is thought to argue that torture conventions do not apply where detainees are formally in the custody of another country.

Since then a battery of 50-odd special "coercive techniques" was introduced in Iraq last autumn after Major-General Geoffrey Miller left Guantanamo Bay to take over as US commander in charge of military jails there.

Apologists for the harsher regime insist that it stops just short of torture. Human rights campaigners disagree. The UN Convention says torture means "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental," is inflicted, says Sherman Carroll of the Medical Foundation.

Such techniques do not work, critics say. "Torture produces hallucinations," says Mr Carroll, "and confessions that may be lies." There are also concerns that interrogators are notoriously poor at regulating the "graduated levels of force". In Israel what was called "moderate physical force" was once lawful and security forces ended up torturing as many as 85 per cent of Palestinian security detainees - thousands of people - before Israel's Supreme Court in 1999 outlawed acts such as shaking prisoners, hoods, 'frog crouching', 'chair perching' and sleep deprivation.

Despite this, according to Human Rights Watch, the practice seems to have increased in the past year and the head of the American defence contracting firm implicated in the torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison visited an Israeli "anti-terror" training camp in the occupied West Bank earlier this year.

But US officials insist that torture does work. The leading al-Qa'ida suspect Abu Zubaydah, under "intensive questioning", they say, revealed details of a plot to build a dirty bomb.

Yet even if it does yield fruits, critics insist that torture is always unacceptable. "Victims of Saddam's regime are re-visiting the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture," says Sherman Carroll. "The recent photos have brought flashbacks of their torture under Saddam."