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Human rights group says it has proof of detainee abuse

Report cites medical review of former inmates

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / June 18, 2008

WASHINGTON - A Cambridge-based human rights organization said it has found medical evidence supporting the claims of 11 former detainees who were allegedly tortured while in American custody between 2001 and 2004, in what a former top US military investigator said amounts to evidence of war crimes.

Medical evaluations of the former inmates found injuries consistent with the alleged abuse, including the psychological effects of sensory deprivation and forced nudity as well as signs of "severe physical and sexual assault," Physicians for Human Rights said in a report scheduled for release today.

The report also alleges that in four of the cases, American health professionals appeared to have been complicit by denying the detainees medical care and observing the abuse but making no effort to stop it - charges that, if true, represent gross violations of medical ethics.

Four of the men were captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and seven were held in Iraq. All were released in recent years, and none was charged with a crime.

Physicians for Human Rights, a liberal-leaning nongovernmental organization established in 1988, relies on health professionals to investigate human rights abuses around the world. It has been credited for chronicling the AIDS epidemic in Africa and investigating conditions in US prisons and juvenile detention centers.

A Physicians for Human Rights official was questioned earlier this month by Israeli authorities after organizing mobile health clinics in Palestinian areas.

The subjects of the group's latest study were identified with the help of two law firms that represent the former detainees, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal advocacy group. The group also established a five-person internal ethics board to review the investigative procedures.

The 130-page report, a copy of which was provided to the Globe, is being released as Congress convenes hearings on the Bush administration's use of controversial interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects. The hearings have examined allegations that some techniques amounted to torture and violated international law, and the Physicians for Human Rights study offers medical evidence to support those allegations.

One detainee who said he was repeatedly stabbed in the cheek with a screwdriver had wounds consistent with such treatment, the doctors reported. Another who said his captors sodomized him also had physical signs that supported the allegation, while several others had burns and psychological problems the doctors concluded were consistent with electrical shocks.

All of them are suffering physical or mental trauma as a result of the abuse, the team of physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists reported.

"This report tells the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the commander in chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture," retired Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who oversaw the official investigation of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004, wrote in the preface.

Neither the Bush administration nor the Pentagon commented on the unpublished report yesterday. President Bush has repeatedly said he does not condone torture and allows interrogation techniques that are aggressive but legal.

The report challenges that contention with a detailed physical and psychological profile of each of the former detainees. In two of the cases, the medical investigators had access to the subjects' recent medical records. All 11 men were given pseudonyms for their protection, according to the report.

The doctors found that "Kamal," an Iraqi in his late 40s held from September 2003 until June 2004 at Abu Ghraib, has a lesion near his right ear that is "consistent with a healed cut from a sharp-edged instrument," according to the report. He also had another wound by his left ear, described as "a healed puncture injury" that matches "Kamal's description of being stabbed with a screwdriver in his cheek by a soldier," the report states.

Psychologically, "Kamal's clinical presentation, reported history of abuse, and the result of psychological testing support the presence of several psychiatric diagnoses," including depression, a panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the report.

A subject named "Amir," an Iraqi in his late 20s held in Abu Ghraib prison from August 2003 to January 2005, "showed signs of rectal tearing that are highly consistent with his report of having been sodomized with a broomstick," the report found.

"Yasser," another Abu Ghraib detainee in his mid-40s, had scars on his thumbs and irregularities in the contours of his tongue, according to the report. The medical team concluded that the damage supports his contention that his American captors subjected him to electric shocks.

The report quotes directly from Yasser's interview with the study team: "When they shock you with electricity it feels like your eyes will explode."

Three of the Iraqi detainees and one former Guantanamo inmate reported that they were examined by a medical professional during an episode of torture or physical abuse, but that the abuse continued, the report states. And in another apparent violation of medical ethics, two of the former Guantanamo detainees said they suspected that the psychologist that interviewed them while in custody shared information about them with their interrogators.

Some of the subjects' injuries, however, the doctors found, could not be conclusively linked to abuse while in US custody.

While a bone scan of a middle-aged Iraqi identified as "Laith" showed significant damage to his jaw, the investigators could not determine whether it resulted from blunt force trauma by his captors or a prior dental infection.

Still, Physicians for Human Rights concluded that all of the interrogation techniques the 11 men allegedly endured - including officially sanctioned exposure to extreme temperatures and placement in "stress positions," as well as unauthorized treatment such as sexual abuse - violated both domestic criminal law and international human rights treaties.

The physicians urged the Bush administration to "repudiate all forms of torture" and called on Congress to immediately ban at least 17 of the interrogation techniques they chronicled in their review. It also said the US government should provide reparations to the abuse victims.

General Taguba's judgment was far more severe. "There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes," he wrote.

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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