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Secret Red Cross Report Reveals Medical Personnel Collusion in CIA Torture

by Matt Clarke

A leaked confidential report issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in February 2007, concerning the treatment of fourteen “high value detainees” in CIA custody, revealed torture and collusion by medical personnel in the prisoners’ mistreatment.

In September 2006, the CIA moved fourteen high value guerrilla suspects to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In October and December 2006, members of the ICRC interviewed the fourteen detainees, who were being held in isolation. They had had no opportunity to communicate with each other to concoct a story. Nonetheless, the details they provided of their time in CIA custody were extremely consistent and depicted what the ICRC described as torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment – all in contravention of international law.

The fourteen detainees were initially arrested in foreign countries by those countries’ police or security forces, often with American personnel present. They were subjected to harsh conditions in the country of their arrest, then transferred to a CIA prison in Afghanistan (likely Bagram Air Force Base near Kabul), where they typically received the worst treatment of their detention. They were then moved between one and four times to other CIA-operated “black site” facilities.

The transfers by themselves were a degrading ordeal. The detainees would be stripped naked, hooded, handcuffed, shackled and strapped to a type of horizontal or reclined gurney. A suppository was inserted in their rectums and they were placed in diapers. Headphones with music were used to mask external sounds and conversation. The transfer destination was never disclosed to the prisoners, although all recognized Afghanistan as their second location and some recognized Guantanamo as one of their prior locations after their final transfer. During the transfers, which sometimes lasted many hours, the prisoners were given no access to water, food or a toilet.

All fourteen detainees were subjected to continuous isolation and incognito detention for the duration of their stay in CIA custody, which lasted between 16 and 54 months. They were not allowed to talk to anyone except their interrogators; the guards wore masks to conceal their identities and kept communication to an absolute minimum. The detainees had no access to lawyers or consular officials. Most had no access to news of the outside world and no one was initially informed of their detention, not even their families or the Red Cross.

The detainees were deprived of exercise and access to fresh air. They also were deprived of appropriate hygiene facilities and items such as showers, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, towels, outer clothes, underwear, blankets and mattresses, and were denied access to a Koran except in conjunction with interrogation to reward perceived co-operation.

Many of the fourteen detainees were subjected to harsher types of ill-treatment and torture, including suffocation by water (water boarding); prolonged stress positions by shackling the prisoner’s hands to the wall above his head so that his feet barely touched the ground, forcing him to stand on the tips of his toes; use of a neck collar as a handle to beat the head and body against a wall; beatings with fists and kicking; confinement in tiny boxes that did not allow standing, sitting or lying down; months of prolonged nudity; sleep deprivation using loud noise and cold water; exposure to cold temperatures; prolonged shackling of the feet and hands; forced shaving of hair and beards; deprivation of solid food for weeks; and threats of further mistreatment of the prisoner or his family. One prisoner was subjected to all of these torturous tactics, including being water boarded eleven times and continuously shackled for 19 months.

Some of the fourteen detainees reported that medical personnel were present during the torture, performing functions such as monitoring blood oxygen levels during water boarding and measuring the amount of ankle swelling caused by prolonged standing stress positions. Medical personnel told interrogators to continue the torture or to pause; they also performed examinations prior to and immediately after the detainees were transferred to other locations, and treated torture-related injuries.

The role of medical personnel in furthering the mistreatment and abuse of the prisoners was especially disturbing. The ICRC report specifically found that the primary purpose of medical personnel was not to protect the prisoners but rather to support the interrogators and facilitate torture. The report was unable to conclusively determine whether the medical personnel were physicians or other types or medical professionals, but it found their actions constituted a violation of international law and “a gross breach of medical ethics.” The use of medical personnel to supervise the torture of political prisoners is a long standing American practice extending back to at least the 1950s.

The report concluded, “The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture.”

The ICRC condemned the disclosure of its “strictly confidential” report, which was published on the New York Review of Books website on March 15, 2009, because the organization depends on guaranties of confidentiality to persuade governments to allow inspections of detention facilities and access to prisoners. “We regret information attributed to the ICRC report was made public in this manner,” said Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett.

On September 6, 2006, President Bush had announced that there were no more detainees in the CIA interrogation program, but did not discontinue the program. The U.S. has refused to disclose the identities and fates of prisoners who passed through the program other than the fourteen detainees who were transferred to Guantanamo Bay and interviewed by the ICRC. President Obama has issued executive orders that purport to limit the use of interrogations to non-coercive methods listed in the Army Field Manual.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency’s director, Leon Panetta, had “taken decisive steps to ensure that the CIA abides by the president’s executive orders.” Regardless, it seems unlikely that the officials who ordered, condoned, performed and facilitated the torture of the fourteen detainees profiled in the ICRC report, including medical personnel, will be held accountable for their actions.

In August 2009, the U.S. military agreed to provide information to the ICRC concerning prisoners held at secret short-term detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq; however, the military will not provide the Red Cross with access to those detainees.

Sources: ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody, New York Review of Books, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor

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