Psychological torture — such as threats of rape, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation, sham executions, sexual advances, and witnessing the torture of others — can inflict as much trauma and harm as physical torture, U.K. researchers reported yesterday.
The study was based on interviews with victims of poor treatment and torture while imprisoned in the former Yugoslavia; experts said the findings underscored the need for a broader definition of torture. The study was published Monday in the Archives of General Psychiatry. (The full study is available here.)
The study’s researchers concluded that:
[A]ggressive interrogation techniques or detention procedures involving deprivation of basic needs, exposure to aversive environmental conditions, forced stress positions, hooding or blindfolding, isolation, restriction of movement, forced nudity, threats, humiliating treatment, and other psychological manipulations conducive to anxiety, fear, and helplessness in the detainee do not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the extent of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanisms of traumatic stress, and their long-term traumatic effects. Such stressors satisfy the criterion of “severe mental suffering,” which is central to the definition of torture in international conventions. Furthermore, these findings do not support the distinction between torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment made by the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Interrogation techniques have stirred controversy in the United States after evidence emerged of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after revelations the CIA ran secret prisons outside the the United States for terrorism suspects.
Based on the responses of 279 former prisoners who included Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, the study said it was hard to distinguish between the psychological damage exerted by mental versus physical forms of torture. Of the study participants, 241 were men and 192 had been in detention camps, with the torture experiences occurring roughly eight years earlier. All had experienced at least one form of physical torture — such as beatings — in addition to mental torture, which made it difficult to disentangle the effects of each.
The unpredictability and loss of control created by mental torture can produce similar levels of anxiety, fear and helplessness as physical torture and leave comparable long-term psychological scars.
United Nations conventions that bar torture refer to it as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” study author Metin Basoglu of King’s College wrote.