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Holocaust Museum Hosts Photos by Syrian Dissident

2014 October 16

“People make choices. Choices make history.”

I’ve borrowed the headline above from the website of the invaluable educational resource Facing History and Ourselves. Nothing could better characterize the actions of the courageous Syrian dissident who risked his life, family, and future to bear witness to the brutality of the Assad regime.

ThCaesar-1e United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will be hosting a small display of the devastating images taken by the anonymous Syrian military photographer who was assigned to take photographs of more than 10,000 tortured and murdered victims of President Bashar Assad – as described in my post of earlier this year, Code Name Caesar. At extraordinary risk, Caesar managed to escape with his family to Europe, taking with him more than 55,000 photos documenting the carnage. Some of the photos can be viewed on YouTube.

Interviewed by Brett Zongker for the Associated Press, Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said that the twelve images selected “show dozens of bodies piled atop one another. Others show the effects of deprivation and torture, including electrocution, gouged out eyes and removed genitals…They show a side of the Syrian regime that hasn’t really been seen…When you’re confronted with these images, they’re impossible to ignore.”

“You don’t wither away and die like that on a battlefield” Hudson told the AP. “You don’t get that in a matter of days or weeks. Its months and months of deprivation that causes the human body to wither away like that.”

Perhaps anticipating the denial and disbelief that some viewers might have when confronted with such pictures, the reporter notes that “the museum relied on forensic examinations of the photographs conducted by the FBI and by former prosecutors and forensic experts of the International Criminal Court to verify the authenticity of the images.”

Chile 4140BDRWhen my wife and I visited Chile last year, we were shown a number of sites where torture was carried out under the U.S.-supported Pinochet regime, as well as documentation on others. One of the things that surprised and shocked me – in addition to the sheer number – was the realization of how many torture centers were located in ordinary homes, in ordinary neighborhoods. It simply was not possible for people not to have known what was going on. I believe this is intentional: you are supposed to know.

In a Sunday New York Times article last year, Eric Lichtblau wrote that one of the things that had shocked even experienced scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was the sheer number of Nazi “ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories” that researchers had been able to document, beyond the well-known names. In fact, he notes, there were some 42,500 such installations throughout Europe:

ghetto-2The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.

Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site — the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new research makes painfully clear.

As in Chile, there is no way that citizens of those countries could have been unaware of what was happening in their midst, and it is survivors like Caesar who bear that message from parts of the world that are less open to us.


Other Resources: This may be an appropriate time to recognize some of the other holocaust museums and memorials around the United States (and the world.) A website from the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has a directory of many of these, while Wikipedia lists a total of 44 in the United States alone. The Holocaust Museum’s Confront Genocide page links to a variety of resources on current situations of torture and abuse around the world.


“Mainstreaming Torture” & Other Resources

2014 August 22

RG2Does America Still Torture?

That’s the question Rebecca Gordon asks in The Nation, “Once upon a time, if a character on TV or in a movie tortured someone, it was a sure sign that he was a bad guy. Now, the torturers are the all-American heroes. From 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, it’s been the good guys who wielded the pliers and the waterboards.” (Gordon’s article was also published as “A Nation of Cowards,” by Tom Engelhardt.)

I recently attended a speaking appearance by Gordon at one of the Boston areas invaluable remaining full-service bookstores, Porter Square Books to promote her recently-released Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but based on her talk at the bookstore, I’m looking forward to it (with some dread, but still…) In the meantime, I highly recommend the Nation article. You can also check out her website to see if any of her other upcoming speaking engagements are in your vicinity.

Gordon makes the case that, deRG1spite Barack Obama’s promises to end torture as we knew it under the Bush administration, “the infrastructure for, the capacity for, and the personnel to staff a system of institutionalized state torture remain in place, ready to bloom like a desert plant in a rain shower the next time fear shakes the United States.” As she points out, despite Obama’s executive order directing the CIA to close its detention centers, “no such orders were given…to the Joint Special Operations Command” which had run secret detention centers in Iraq. “JSOC is presently deployed on several continents…where gathering “intelligence” forms an important part of its duties.”

Gordon also reminds us that we have never received a full accounting of all the “War on Terror” torture programs, and possibly never will, and that no government officials have been held accountable. In fact, the only American ever to serve prison time in relation to those programs, John Kariakou, is presently serving time − not for participating in our illegal, immoral, and arguably pointless rendition and torture programs, but for blowing the whistle on them. We live, as she points out, not in a “brave” but in a “cowardly new world.”

“‘Safety’ and ‘security’ have become primary national concerns,” Gordon says. “There is a word for people whose first concern is always for their own safety and who will therefore permit anything to be done in their name as long as it keeps them secure. Such people are sometimes called cowards.”
(Author photo: Art Illman, Metro West Daily News)


Recognizing Victims of Torture

According to Rachel Towers, author of a new report, Recognizing Victims of Torture in National Asylum Procedures, from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, “Many developed countries still do not have the proper policies in place to ensure that victims of torture are not re-traumatized by the asylum process, or are deported back to the country where they were tortured.”

The study found that, in a majority of the countries studied, legitimate abuse victims who are seeking protection have had the evidence of their torture misread or ignored by immigration officers, and many were detained or deported.


Refugees and the Affordable Care Act

This sDividehort video is pretty clunky, but offers information that will be important for many refugees, and provides it in six of the major languages spoken by current immigrants to the United States: English, Nepali, Arabic, Somali, Karen, and Kinyarwanda. It’s available from the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center and the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement.


The New York Times apologizes…

2014 August 19

NY Times’ apologizes for failure to
acknowledge torture…ten years too late

I never thought I had anything in common with Sarah Palin except a fondness for salmon, but when I read the New York Times’ recent defense of its decade-plus refusal to acknowledge torture by U.S. forces, “lamestream media” was the first (non-obscene) phrase that came to mind.

The paper’s Executive Editor, Dean Baquet, writes: “Over the past few months, reporters and editors of the Times have debated a subject that has come up regularly ever since the world learned of the CIA’s brutal questioning of terrorism suspects: whether to call the practices torture.” Over the past few months? Most of the rest of the world – including most of its media – have had little trouble identifying what was going on as torture. Did it really take more than ten years for the Times to figure it out?

And the phrase “mealy mouthed” is the only description I can come up with for the rest of Baquet’s column, in which he apologizes for his paper’s refusal to face reality until years after it might have made a difference in the national debate.

The Times’ abdication might not seem to matter much, but the reality is that if the nation’s “paper of record” had been willing to call out the Bush administration for what it was actually doing – even if only to use the word “torture” in its coverage – it might well have changed the nature and level of public discourse on the issue. It might have saved lives, and it might have helped save the soul of the nation.

This kind of reporting by the Times and other media might also have made it more dangerous, politically, for Obama to refuse to seek prosecutions of those who were responsible. After all, it’s one thing to let your predecessors off the hook if all they’re guilty of is authorizing “harsh interrogation methods,” rather than torture.

There’s something else missing from the Times’ “apology” too. It’s the part my parents taught me always had to be included: the part that goes “…and I won’t do it again.”

…and itsGaza2 shifting headlines of a few
weeks ago are equally disturbing

In its first online account of the killing, by Israeli rockets, of four boys playing on a Gaza beach, the New York Times headlined its story “Four Young Boys Killed on Gaza Beach,” and went on to say, “Gaza officials and witnesses said they were killed in an Israeli attack.” This was an accurate and restrained statement of the facts that were available at the time. By the time the story made it into the paper’s final, print edition, however, the headline had become “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and into Center of Mideast Strife.” What does that even mean?

I have no problem with the final Times article by Anne Barnard which appeared under that headline and is a relatively objective account of the facts as they were known at the time of publication, but nothing in it explains its strange, bland title. (Note that the last part of the online address of the Barnard article, which often reflects a piece’s original or “working” title, is quite different. It reads: gaza-strip-beach-explosion-kills-children.html. It would be interesting to know who at the Times suggested, or ordered, the change.

Barnard’s article includes a map, which indicates that the first child was killed on what appears to be a sandspit or pier (possibly the “structure…used by Hamas” mentioned below, but the other three were killed roughly 30 seconds later, as they were running away across the beach, suggesting that they were specifically targeted by the naval attack.

Alon Ben-David, a well-sourced Israeli military affairs analyst, said on Israeli television that the first beach blast targeted a structure that Israel believed was used by Hamas. He said the second blast might have been aimed at the running children, perhaps mistaken for militants. He added that given the military’s technologically advanced surveillance equipment, “it is a little hard for me to understand this, because the images show that the figures are children.”

And now, as I’m wrapping up this article, the news is coming in that the Cairo peace talks have collapsed after Israeli delegates refused to lift the blockade. Three rockets were allegedly fired into Israel, and Israeli forces have resumed shelling Gaza.


A Vacation from Gun Violence?

2014 August 14

Guns1YearAmericans have way more guns,
but less vacation time…

An excellent resource paper from the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania details the horrendous toll taken by firearms each year in this country, and looks at some of the causes and consequences of that fact for what we still refer to as American civilization.

There’s no doubt that one of the primary factors in the enormous toll taken by guns in this country each year is their sheer prevalence. With almost one gun per person (97.0 per hundred residents) the United States has almost twice as many as the next cluster of contenders, Serbia (58.2) and Yemen (54.8), and the numbers go down steeply from there. (Fourth place goes to Switzerland at 45.7, but note that most adult men there, as part of the national militia, are required to keep their government-issued rifles at home. However, they are forbidden to keep ammunition for the guns, which would only be issued in case of national emergency.)

Having just read Katie Johnston’s excellent Boston Globe article, “Vacation not Included,” over my breakfast coffee, I thought I’d go out on a limb and speculate that some of the free-floating aggression that seems to characterize the U.S., and feed into our high rates of firearm suicide and murder, might also have to do with the fact that the United States is alone among twenty-one of the world’s wealthiest nations in requiring no paid vacations – that’s none, zero, nada. And, no surprise, it primarily affects poor people. Johnston reports that, while 90% of the top quarter of U.S. earners receive paid vacations, only 49% of the bottom quarter do.

In this regard, the United States falls in line with India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and a handful of island nations that don’t require employers to offer workers paid time off. France, on the other hand, mandates 30 paid vacation days a year for all workers; Scandinavian countries offer 25. US citizens in Puerto Rico get three weeks off a year.

I spent some time juggling the numbers, but I’m no statistician (any volunteers to help out?) Doesn’t it make sense, though, that the stress of having to work 52 weeks a year just to hang onto a job – and sometimes being unable to do even that – might make people a little bit hostile.

rangerWhen paid vacation legislation has been proposed, Johnston notes, it has routinely been shot down: “Some conservative commentators have called the proposals socialism; others say they would create a nation of slackers: ‘From the reaction we got, you would have thought we were proposing the end of Western civilization,’ said John De Graaf, executive director of the paid-leave coalition Take Back Your Time.”

De Graaf has produced a short film on the disappearance of vacation time in the United States, The Great Vacation Squeeze, which can be previewed on YouTube. A Yosemite National Park ranger says in the film that 20 years ago, 80 percent of visitors stayed overnight, while today’s average visit is less than five hours. The complete documentary is available from Bullfrog Films.

New publication supports recovery
from gun violence-related disabilities

A new book available through the Transitions Foundation of Guatemala focuses on recovery from disabilities which result from gun violence. Transitions is an amazing grassroots group, based in TransitionsAntigua, that I’ve supported for many years – since I first saw a film about their work in my film distributor days. Run almost entirely by people with disabilities themselves, it began as a project to modify first-world wheelchairs for third world conditions (dirt roads and cobblestone streets, no curb cuts – you get the picture) but has expanded into other disability-related issues as well.

While the disabilities of many of those Transitions serves are the result of accidents, congenital birth defects, and other causes, gun violence is a huge contributor. This is, of course, true not just in Latin America but in many areas throughout the world − not least the United States. You can order a new book, Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery from the Surviving Gun Violence ProjectProceeds from sales of the book go to the Transitions Foundation, but it’s a bit pricy, so you may want to see if your university or local library will make the purchase.

Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery “has chapters on victims’ rights, traumatic injuries, rehabilitation and recovery, social protection, and case studies on Canada, India, Guatemala, Somalia, and South Africa. Shorter pieces highlight spinal cord injury in Haiti, the 2011 victims’ law in Colombia, the plight of a South African prisoner with gunshot-related paralysis, gun violence and masculinity, and much more. Profiles of survivors are woven through the book. An annex details 56 international standards relevant to a rights-based approach to respond to survivors of armed violence.

“This resource is directly relevant to anyone working in violence reduction, human rights, trauma, rehabilitation, social protection, gender justice, development, post-war recovery and associated concerns.”


Architects’ Campaign Takes on New Urgency

2014 August 12

Group expands efforts against complicity…

In tChair1he wake of the recent horribly botched executions in Arizona and Oklahoma, the campaign by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility to “prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” has taken on new urgency. It has recently been endorsed by the Boston Society of Architects whose Ethics Committee, as the group notes, wrote most of the American Institute of Architects’ current National Code of Ethics. AIA chapters in Portland and San Francisco are also supporting the petition.

Chair2Unfortunately, as ADPSR’s newsletter notes, The AIA’s New York City chapter has declined to support the campaign. “Taking the lead from their chapter’s committee of jail/prison/courthouse designers, AIA New York does not want to see ethics drive potential correctional clients to non-AIA architecture firms.”

Non-architects’ organizations endorsing the campaign include the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the Center for Architecture and Human Rights, the Design Corps, and ARC-Peace (an international architects’ association.)

Architects participate in shaping the experience of people in detention…So-called “supermax” prisons (among other specialized prison environments) impose long-term solitary isolation that is well-known to cause a level of severe mental pain and suffering amounting to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or even torture. Accordingly, it is not appropriate for individuals or organizations that support human rights to participate in or condone the design or construction of supermax prisons (or other similar spaces). In addition, juvenile detention centers and secure mental health facilities should not be designed with spaces intended for any form of solitary isolation.

Juan E. Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

To Join the ADPSR Campaign, Sign on to the Petition here. You can join the group’s email list for further information, or view the current list of endorsers.

adpsr2In the meantime, the AIA’s National President has evidently agreed to convene a study group to consider the ADPSR platform. “Will AIA identify itself as a professional association distinguished by high standards,” the ADPSR newsletter asks, “or a pool of self-interested businessmen who like to draw?”

NOTE: I know that there are other professional organizations taking important stands against the involvement of their members in activities that violate human rights. Psychologists for Social Responsibility, for example, has struggled for years – so far unsuccessfully – to get the American Psychological Association to take a firm stance against its members’ involvement in military interrogation methods involving torture. I would welcome hearing about any similar campaigns, and will do my best to help spread the word about them.

If interested in following ADPSR’s campaign, see the link for its email list above. Also check out Nancy Kurshan’s Out of Control, a book-length attack reviewed previously here, on America’s shocking over-use of solitary confinement in “Control-Unit” or “Supermax” prisons.


Bullying: Its Impact Can be Lifelong

2014 August 5

Bullying’s Impact Can be Profound,
and Can Persist Well Into Adulthood

As regular readers may be aware, one of the underlying assumptions of this blog is that state-sponsored torture is not an isolated phenomenon, but lies at one end of a spectrum that includes spousal and child abuse, workplace humiliation, childhood bullying, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. All involve relationships of impunity. Bullies and abusers do not operate in situations where they would fear reprisal.

I’m not a very big guy – a little on the nerdy/intellectual side, and I’ve always worn glasses – so if schoolyard bullying was to be done, I was more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator. Sometime in high school, though – freshman, or maybe sophomore year – I switched roles. There was this really nasty kid in some of my classes, even smaller than I was, the first open racist and anti-Semite I’d ever had to deal with, and an acolyte of Ayn Rand to boot.

One day at the end of gym class he made some comment that finally got to me. I shoved him into an open locker and slammed the door. It felt great, briefly, but I was almost immediately overwhelmed by guilt. Before I could open the locker door, though, one of the genuine bullies of the class – bigger and way tougher, and with the black leather jacket and ducktail haircut to go with the rumors that he might be “connected” – pushed in front of the locker and said, “Leave him in there asshole. He had it coming.”  The resulting shoving match escalated, and I ended up with my first black eye and an undeserved, and very short-lived, reputation for courage.

A couple of recent academic articles on bullying shed some light for me both on what happened back then, and on why I still remember it. They suggest that the impact of being a victim of bullying and of bullying itself can last well into adulthood, and one paper raises the disturbing possibility that bullies, on the whole, fare better psychologically than their victims. Moreover – and here’s where my story comes in – it suggests that people who have both bullied and been bullied are troubled the most of all.

ImpunityIn their recent study, Childhood Bullying Involvement Predicts Low-grade Systemic Inflamation into Adulthood, William E. Copland, et al, note that bullying “is the most frequent form of violence experienced outside the home, although it is still considered by many to be a harmless rite of passage and by others a modest, time-limited stressor. Our findings suggest this childhood social adversity may disrupt levels of inflammation well into adulthood, similar to what is seen for early traumatic events such as child maltreatment.”

As summarized in the Washington Post’s article on the study, “researchers asked 1,420 youngsters between the ages of 9 and 16 whether and how often they had been bullied or had bullied others. Interviewers asked participants whether they felt more teased, bullied or treated meanly by siblings, friends and peers than other children and whether they had upset or hurt other people on purpose, tried to get others in trouble, or forced people to do something by threatening or hurting them.”

The group’s research used levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of low-grade systemic inflammation, as “a physiological marker” for ongoing stress. (See the original article for a more detailed explanation of the science behind this.) The researchers found significantly higher than average levels of CRP in children who reported being bullied, as compared to those with no involvement in bullying, and the increase was greater still in those who reported being bullied more often. Moreover, this effect continued well into adulthood. The New York Times coverage of the study quoted lead author William E. Copeland as saying, “the only other kind of social adversity where we see this kind of long-term effect is in children who are physically abused or neglected. We don’t think about bullying the same way, but I’m moving toward the position that we should. This kind of social defeat is more potent and long-lasting than we previously thought.”

On the other hand, habitual bullies, children and teens who reported bullying others multiple times, had the lowest CRP levels of all – or less stress – even compared to children who were not involved in bullying one way or the other.

In its most interesting finding, for me – and where the above anecdote comes in – the study found that children who reported both bullying others and being bullied themselves had the highest CRP levels of all.

In the second study, Adult Health Outcomes of Childhood Bullying Victimization, Ryu Takizawa and co-authors report on research indicating that the impact of schoolyard bullying may persist long after childhood: “Increasing evidence now confirms that being a target of bullying in childhood jeopardizes young victims’ well-being and contributes to the development of mental health problems early in life. Not only do victims of bullying have elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression in childhood and adolescence, they also show increased rates of self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, and psychotic symptoms.” Longer-term effects observed included “lack of social relationships, economic hardship, and poor perceived quality of life at age 50.”

The study notes that such effects of bullying persist “at least to middle adulthood…[and were] also associated with poor social relationships, economic difficulties, and lower perceived quality of life.”

Many thanks to Ken Pope‘s invaluable news alerts for making me aware of this article. The graphic is from IFEX “the global network defending free expression,” and was encountered on the site of Sampsonia Way, a website of City of Asylum/Pittsburg.)

NOTE: If any of my readers are aware of comparable or related research on torturers – those who order it or those who carry it out – I would be very interested in knowing more. You can add a comment to this post or, if you prefer, contact me directly:


Death on the Border

2014 August 5

One of the worst places for immigrants to die…

The July 27, 2014, Boston Sunday Globe has an outstanding multi-page (and multi-layered) report by staff reporter Maria Sacchetti and photographer Jessica Rinaldi on border crossers from Central America. The story focuses on Brooks County, Texas, “one of the worst places for immigrants to die…a vast, sun-baked expanse of cattle ranches an hour north of the border.” 129 bodies of migrants were discovered in the county in 2012, twice the number found the year before.

rin1Sacchetti bookends her piece with the story of Salvadoran migrant Santos Interiano and his sister Maria, who lives in East Boston, Massachusetts. Santos had first crossed into the U.S. illegally in 1998, but had been given temporary legal status because of his country’s devastating earthquakes in 2001. After a series of setbacks, he asked for permission to make a visit to El Salvador to see family, but made the mistake of leaving before the letter of permission arrived, thereby losing the right to return legally. He chose to swim the Rio Grande – into Brooks County.

The text messages Maria received from him after that told of being packed by “coyotes” into a crowded, stifling warehouse with over a hundred others, without food or water – and fearing that the smugglers were going to confiscate everyone’s cellphones. His last message warned “If you don’t hear from me don’t send anyone money, OK?”

rin3Threaded through the article as well are the stories of a group of Baylor University forensic anthropology students working as part of the Reuniting Families Project to recover and identify the remains of migrants who have died on the journey and been buried in unmarked graves. “We’re trying to remember that they had a life and we want to get them back to their families,” one student says. “We’re going to give them back their identity.” In too many cases, though, that’s not possible.

Some weeks later, Santo’s father got an anonymous call telling him that his son was dead, but Maria still dreams that he is alive. “The problem,” she says, “is when you wake up.”
(photos by Jessica Rinaldi)


Parents Who Torture

2014 July 24

JaiDoctor Waterboardl Sentence for Doctor Who Waterboarded his Daughter

In mid-April, author and former pediatrician Melvin Morse was finally convicted and sentenced for waterboarding his young daughter. He will serve three years in prison, with two years of probation to follow. Morse, whose medical license had previously been suspended, repeatedly held his young daughter’s head under a faucet as punishment (though his defense counsel unsuccessfully tried to pass it off as washing her hair.) In July of 2012, neighbors had seen him grab her by the ankle and drag her home across a driveway, after she had tried to escape to a neighbor’s house. It was during the investigation that followed that his use of water torture came out.

Morse’s abuse of his daughter had apparently gone on for some time with the knowledge of her mother, who pled guilty to misdemeanor endangerment. The court is allowing her to have supervised visits with her daughter, who is in foster care.

Morse had become a best-selling author with his research and writing on “near death” and “paranormal” experiences. He has been interviewed on television by Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, as well as profiled on PBS and in Rolling Stone. His books have included reports of near death experiences by children, though he claims that he was “merely disciplining” his daughter, not experimenting on her.

I’ve also posted previously about the 2010 case oTaborf Washington state Iraq veteran Joshua Ryan Tabor, who was arrested for waterboarding his 4-year-old daughter “because she refused to recite the alphabet.” According to neighbors Tabor had “anger management issues.” Police had been called out when he was reported walking around the neighborhood wearing battle gear and threatening to break neighbors’ windows. Tabor received a two-month slap-on-the-wrist sentence.

In a more recent incident that I have so far only found reported in the New York Daily News, a couple in Belgium have repeatedly been accused of imprisoning and waterboarding their four children, beating them with iron bars, and subjecting them to a variety of other horrors over a period of several years. The story notes that teachers became alarmed at the condition of the children and their clothes and notified authorities, who placed the children in foster care — but evidently only for two months.

And Huffington Post carried a story from last year, of a Montana man who waterboarded not only his own two children (9 and 12 years old), but two neighbor kids as well. He claimed the abuse was not meant as punishment, but as “a learning experience.” Though he did spend a little over two months in custody pending trial, the man then made a deal with prosecutors for a suspended sentence on four counts – misdemeanor counts – of child endangerment. According to court documents, “His girlfriend at the time said he broke her wrist and some fingers when she tried to stop him from waterboarding his sons. She said the man straddled each boy with his hands over the child’s face and mouth, and dumped water on their faces to simulate drowning.”

So what is going on here? At one level, it’s no doubt true that there have always been some parents who abuse their children, and most of us agree that none of the explanations that have been advanced for such abuse make it in any way acceptable. What’s behind child abuse in general is a long discussion that I may revisit in future posts.

BuZD3-3t what “abuse” means has changed over time. It was not terribly long ago that “spare the rod, spoil the child” was widespread parenting gospel. Not every parent practiced it – maybe not even most – but few would have risked publically criticizing a neighbor who did, short of serious, visible injury to the child. Prosecution was rare and, as we have sadly come to realize, real damage, physical as well as psychological, was sometimes done.

ZD3-4Severe physical punishment by parents hasn’t disappeared, but it’s frowned upon and it’s less common. But the legitimization of waterboarding, by the Bush administration – not to mention its glamorization in the popular film Zero Dark Thirty – may, at least in the minds of some, have made it seem like this particular form of “discipline” is no big deal. The Bush administration did it…and defended doing it. The Obama administration doesn’t do it anymore, they say, but has announced that, though it’s perhaps regrettable that things like that occurred, no one should be prosecuted. For all practical purposes, waterboarding – and perhaps some other weapons in the arsenal of “enhanced interrogation” techniques – are still on the table for any future administration to dust off and put into practice for the next “existential conflict” that comes along.


Updates on Recent Posts

2014 May 7

ExecutionArchitects/planners call
for professionals to resist

This week’s horrifying reports on a botched execution in Oklahoma, gives new and more urgent meaning to the campaign by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (reported on here in January) which calls on members of those professions to refuse to participate in the design of “spaces intended for executions or prolonged solitary confinement.” A recent email from the group notes that their initial petition has now been endorsed by American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapters in San Francisco and Portland, as well as by a number of prominent architects. They’ve also launched another petition campaign targeting architecture professors and educators.

Taking the shackles off pregnant prisoners
An excellent recent article in the Boston Globe reported on efforts to ban the use of handcuffs or other shackles on women during delivery in Massachusetts − a national movement reported on in our previous post. Some of the comments received by the paper were, as usual, hostile and abusive, referring for example to “selfish criminals that give birth to addicted babies,” while others were supportive (“What total morons decided to have women in labor shackled? Did it ever occur to them what shackling might do to the fetus as it was placed under the same stress as the mother?”)


The Rights of Torture Survivors

2014 May 1

Video Focuses on Torture Survivors’
Right to Redress and Rehabilitation

Some of the internationally recognized rights of survivors of torture are outlined in a short video from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights,which litigates cases that seek to hold state and non-state actors accountable for violating the rights of the most vulnerable.  The program highlights some barriers to torture rehabilitation as well.

NovakThe video features former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak (at left), who discusses the rights torture survivors have under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. “Torture is one of the most serious human rights violations,” Nowak comments in the video: “Torture survivors are in need of whatever support and rehabilitation is available to overcome their experience.” Also interviewed in the video is Dr. Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, of the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims.

“Rehabilitation centers for the victims of torture often operate in an environment characterized by insecurity and violence. Their engagement with victims of torture, the provision of medical services, and particularly the documentation of torture cases make them frequent targets of those who inflicted the suffering. As a consequence, physicians, forensic experts, psychologists, administrative staff and volunteers all work under considerable personal risk and are often confronted with harassment, threats, assault or even killings.

“Furthermore, the recent global financial crisis has had a tangible impact on many centers, forcing them to cut back existing services because funding from private foundations has decreased.”

2010 report to the United Nations General Assembly
by then Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak

So what’s a rapporteur?

The word refers to someone who has been designated to investigate a particular issue and report back to a “deliberative body,” in this case, the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has been mandated to “examine, monitor, advise and publicly report” to the Council on human rights violations. Special Rapporteurs act independently of all governments. They are not members of the UN staff, and are expected to operate “impartially, honestly, and in good faith.” The current Special Rapporteur on Torture is Juan Mendez, a lawyer and human rights activist from Argentina who, early in his career, was arrested by his country’s military dictatorship and subjected to torture for 18 months.

The Special Rapporteurs do not receive any financial compensation for their work, but get staffing and logistical support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Interestingly, at one time the code of conduct for Rapporteurs did not allow them to address the media about their findings and recommendations, but this is no longer the case.


Insanity is lurking on the other side…

2014 February 27

Rock Band Bills Pentagon for Use of Music as Torture

Just a couple of hours after uploading my recent post about music as a weapon of torture, I found out that a Canadian band has actually sent a bill to the Pentagon for using their music to torture prisoners. According to Steven Hsieh, writing for The Nation:

Skinny Puppy, an industrial rock band from Vancouver, wants $666,000 in royalties for the use of their music “as an actual weapon against somebody.” Keyboardist cEvin Key says the band learned that its songs were played at Guantánamo from a former prison guard, who happens to be a fan. “I am not only against the fact they’re using our music to inflict damage on somebody else but they are doing it without anybody’s permission.”

“We heard through a reliable grapevine that our music was being used to musically stun or torture people,” Key, the group’s founder, told The Independent, “so we thought it would be a good idea to SkinnyPuppyinvoice the US government for musical services.” The journal noted that “despite the band’s aggressive sound, they said they had never envisioned their music being used in such a way.” Skinny Puppy is also said to be thinking about suing the U.S. Defense Department.

“Asked how he felt about their songs allegedly being used in the detention camp, Key replied: ‘Not too good. We never supported those types of scenarios…Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us.’”

Both the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music for interrogation. In his Nation article, Hsieh cites a Der Spiegel  interview with Ruhal Ahmed, who was detained without trial at Guantánamo and says that he suffered extensive music torture there. Interrogators reportedly shackled his hands to his feet and his feet to the ground, forcing his body into a squat, while music blared for days. Describing that experience to Der Spiegel, he said, “You can’t concentrate on anything. Before that, when I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain. You lose control and start to hallucinate. You’re pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side.”

Revelations about music as torture go back almost to the beginnings of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A CIA spokesperson at the time was quoted by as saying that the music was used only for “security purposes, not for punitive purposes — and at levels far below a live rock band.” According to an AP article in Today/Music, however, the tactic has been common in the U.S. so-called war on terror, musicand used on hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. “Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the U.S. military commander in Iraq, authorized it on Sept. 14, 2003, ‘to create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock.’”  

Other artists who have objected in recent years to having their work appropriated by the military and CIA include groups like Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails, as well as Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf. Yes, even Sesame Street tunes have been deployed in Guantanamo interrogations by our military, not to mention that ultimate in high-tech weaponry, Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I love you, you love me,” also written by Cerf. A 2012 documentary by Al Jazeera follows Cerf “while he learns exactly how his music has been used to torture the men held in that infamous legal abyss.” See the trailer for the 52-minute documentary.

In a 2009-10 Reprieve campaign called “Zero dB,” some of these groups struck back. “Taking issue with their music reportedly being blasted at ear-bleeding levels in an attempt to break uncooperative terror suspects,” noted The Associated Press, “a diverse and growing coalition of musicians including R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg is demanding that Obama close down Guantánamo.” According to BBC News, R.E.M. announced their participation in the coalition, saying, “We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of these torture tactics without their consent or knowledge is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.”

…and nothing has changed.


Shackled During Childbirth

2014 February 23

What Would You Call it if Not Torture?

My email inbox today included an online petition campaign from the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is trying to get legislation out of committee to end the practice of shackling women during labor and delivery. While several jurisdictions have already outlawed this practice, in at least 30 states including NoShacklesMassachusetts, women may be – and often are – handcuffed, shackled, or otherwise restrained during childbirth. An article by Christina Costantini on the digital network, Fusion, notes that the American Medical Association has called the practice “unsafe, medically hazardous, and barbaric.”

While none of the sources I checked referred to this practice as torture, I don’t know what else you would call a procedure that causes severe psychological distress, physical pain, and emotional humiliation – and has no rational necessity.

As Pat Nolan writes on the website of the Justice Fellowship, “In the case of pregnant inmates, there is little chance of escape…women in labor are hardly capable of leaping off the bed and escaping.” She cites the video testimony of an Arkansas inmate, Shawanna Nelson, incarcerated for passing a bad check. Nelson’s attorney, Cathleen Compton, describes the scene like this: “The officer is in there the whole time, with a gun, OK? So now you have a woman who’s delivered a nearly ten-pound baby, and there’s an officer with a gun standing by…What’s the chain for? Why’d they need to chain her? I just can’t wrap my mind around that.” (See the video at the bottom of this post.)

Costantini writes that “cases involving immigrant detainees are particularly controversial, since some detainees haven’t committed any crime beyond being in the country without status, or crossing the border without authorization.” She cites the cases of two women in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County Arizona:

“Both women, who were in jail for immigration-related offenses, say that they were shackled to their hospital beds with a leg restraint before and after they gave birth, without their husbands and in the presence of a prison guard. Chacon says that she was restrained even as she gave birth.

“Mothers in some jails are permitted ongoing access to their newborns in the days and months after they’ve given birth, but both Mendiola-Martinez and Chacon say they that was not the case for them. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.”

You might be inclined to discount this story, given Maricopa County’s reputation for extreme insensitivity to human rights, but there are countless similar accounts, from all sections of the country including – as noted in the first paragraph above – liberal, progressive Massachusetts.

(Poster image from the website of the Strong Families Movement via ACLU of Massachusetts.)


Refuge Documentary Now Available

2014 February 17

REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture

The public launch of our hour-long documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, has taken longer than planned, but it is NOW AVAILABLE. Take a look at the trailer below, then visit our newly-redesigned website for more information and to order copies of the film.

Over the past several months, Refuge has been “premiered” at the UNSPOKEN Human Rights Film Festival, and featured at the national conferences of the American Public Health Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. It will be shown in May, 2014, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture, and is also scheduled for an upcoming symposium on “The New Immigration,” in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Check out two recent reviews of the documentary by Video Librarian and World Without Torture (an online publication of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.)



New Resources: January 29, 2014

2014 January 30

Music as Torture

The latest issue of Torture, the quarterly journal of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, has an unusual focus: music as a means of torture — yet sometimes also as a strategy of resistance.

“Despite the tendency to focus on music’s benign and positive role, we are confronted today with clear disclosures of its role in torture and human rights violations. Recent revelations of music’s use in the detention and interrogation centres of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ have underlined music’s potential to wound and cause suffering…Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib have attracted global media attention, but by no means are they unique cases. Is it music in itself or the high volume and repetition that transform it into torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment…?”

“Can the use of music in detention be beneficial for the prisoners,” ask the edition’s editors, Anna Papaeti and M.J. Grant, in their introduction, “or is it always aligned with an intention to subdue, break, and often ridicule them?”

wall-1All but one of the articles in the journal focus on uses of music for purposes of punishment or torture. The exception, by Johann Buis, looks at the positive use of song and dance by Nelson Mandela and other prisoners in South Africa’s Robben Island prison during the apartheid period. “He suggests that music and dance formed an internal cultural grounding for the political prisoners,” write the editors, “which not only enabled their survival in prison, but was also instrumental in shaping public policy later on when Mandela chose forgiveness instead of retribution during his term as president.”

All articles in the current issue of Torture, are available free online, as are back issues from the journal’s archive. You can also sign up to receive email notices of each new issue, or to subscribe to the print edition.

While you’re on the IRCT website, check out the Testimonies Wall for first-hand stories from survivors of torture around the world.

wall-2Psychological Assessment

“Torture is widely prohibited — and widely practiced,” writes Kenneth S. Pope in his valuable article, Psychological Assessment of Torture Survivors.  “Those who conduct psychological assessments of people who have been tortured face complex challenges in reaching conclusions that are valid and useful.” The essay sets out to provide guidelines to achieving accurate assessments, that can lead to appropriate and effective treatment. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this resource before, but it has been updated somewhat, so is worth bringing to your attention again. Ken offers the article free online, but notes that it has also been published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Volume 35.

(The photos in this post are from the IRCT Testimonies wall – see above.)


Code Name: Caesar

2014 January 26

Smuggled Photos Document
Torture and Murder of 11,000 Syrians

A recently revealed trove of more than 55,000 photographs, smuggled at great risk out of Syria, documents the torture and murder of thousands of defenseless prisoners under President Bashar al-Assad. The images are particularly chilling because – like the photos documenting the  crimes of the Nazi concentration camps or of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison – they seem so coldly bureaucratic. You can almost imagine the instruction sheet:

  • Ensure that all ID numbers are in proper sequence
  • Arrange the subject with all marks of torture clearly visible
  • Take five photos from different angles (time est. 15-30 minutes)
  • Repeat 11,000 times

The location and identity of the photographer himself, currently living under the code name “Caesar,” are secret – although the Syrian president and his agents clearly know who he is. Caesar’s former responsibilities had been documenting crime scenes and accidents for the military police but, as reported by the online magazine, “when the revolution started in 2011, Caesar-1he was entrusted with a whole new task: take photographs of real or supposed opponents who had been tortured to death or executed in cold blood in the government’s prisons.”

When he could no longer stomach the assignment, the magazine reports, Caesar joined the rebellion. It took almost a year before he and his family – and the photos – could be smuggled out of the country, but the devastating pictures have now been authenticated by an internationally recognized panel of legal and forensic experts, who have also attested to Caesar’s reliability as a witness.

Often naked or covered with rags, the bodies bear traces of different types of torture: laceration, strangulation, electrocution, mutilation. On most of the chests, numbers written with a marker identify the victims. For others, it’s a piece of cardboard placed at their feet: “It’s the number that’s given to the detainees when they’re arrested and when they’re pronounced dead,” explains Emadeddin Rachid. “The numbers follow each other,” he says. “It’s assembly-line killing.”

Rachid is one of the Syrian opponents of al-Assad’s regime who were instrumental in getting the roughly 55,000 photos – as well as the photographer and his family – out of the country. “Killing its opponents is the regime’s routine,” explains Rachid. “Registering torture is nothing more than the continued pursuit of the routine.”

According to CNN, the images “paint a horrific scene. Stomachs, faces and even legs are concave – sunken, rather than convex. On some torsos, bruising and bleeding is so severe that the victim’s skin is a Caesar-2mosaic of black, red, purple and pink. Oblong and parallel wounds, a mix of bruises and torn skin, line one man’s chest and torso, covering every inch of the victim’s body from neck to pelvis.”

The British newspaper, The Guardian, suggests that the report’s publication “appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.” Any firm action resulting from the already divided and acrimonious conference, however, seems unlikely.

“The evidence could underpin a charge of crimes against humanity, without any shadow of a doubt,” said Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and one of the authors of the report. Unfortunately, as the CNN article also notes, “Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. The only way the Court could prosecute someone from Syria would be through a referral from the United Nations Security Council.” But as long as Russia — which has veto power over Security Council decisions — continues to support Assad, that’s not going to happen.


Architects Take Stand Against Torture

2014 January 20
by Ben Achtenberg

A group of architects and architecture students have called upon the American Institute of Architects to take a formal stand prohibiting “the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” AIATheir petition campaign on has succeeded in gathering almost 1,200 signatures and the campaign had begun to receive significant press coverage, including an in-depth story by CBC radio (Canada).

Participating in the design or construction of such spaces, they have stated, “is fundamentally incompatible with professional practice that respects standards of decency and human rights. AIA has the opportunity to lead our profession in upholding human rights.” In particular, the campaign is focusing on so-called “supermax” prisons and the detention of juveniles in solitary confinement.

According to the group’s statement, “In 2011, United Nations bodies determined that long-term solitary isolation is a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by international law, and made special reference to the United States use of supermax prisons and juvenile solitary confinement as violations. All international human rights bodies have also long included abolition of the death penalty as a necessary ultimate step in realizing human rights. AIA‘s code of ethics already includes the statement ‘Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors,’ but this standard is unenforceable without reference to international human rights standards.”

The organization, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), has also demanded that the AIA “Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct: should prohibit the design of “spaces for killing” such as execution chambers. The group’s petition campaign welcomes signers who are not architects.


Federal Shutdown and Sequestration

2013 December 21

CDCThe Impact of Budget Cuts
on Services to Survivors

Programs serving survivors of torture operate on a very frayed shoestring, and – no surprise – are seriously affected whenever their funding sources themselves face cutbacks. Here are a few examples of how recent cutbacks at the Federal level affected the San Diego organization, Survivors of Torture International, courtesy of the organization’s November, 2013, newsletter.

  • Sequestration resulted in a 3% cut in the organization’s grant from the Department of Health & Human Services. That may not sound like much, but for an organization whose budget doesn’t contain any fat, it’s significant.
  • The U.S. also cut back on its contribution to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. The Fund, in turn, had to cut back on its funding to organizations serving survivors.
  • During the government shutdown, hearings for asylum seekers were postponed for more than six months, a severe hardship for many if not most asylum seekers who had already exhausted the very limited government benefits available to them. Many had to turn to voluntary agencies such as Survivors for help.
  • Funding cuts led to more asylum seekers being released from federally-contracted detention centers – a positive step in one respect, since many were being detained unnecessarily, but one which at the same time led to increased demand for services from other agencies.

On another front, Survivors of Torture International applauds the fact that the coming Affordable Care Act will include coverage for refugees and those who have been granted asylum in the U.S., but notes that it will not include those who do not have refugee status or who are seeking, but have not yet received, asylum. (Photo from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)


Paul Aussaresses Took Pride in Use of Torture

2013 December 17

French Officer Who Refined the Use of Torture During
the Battle of Algiers Trained Chile’s Secret Police as Well

AussaressesA New York Times obituary on Sunday noted that General Paul Aussaresses “stunned France in 2000 when he asserted that he cold-bloodedly tortured and summarily executed dozens of prisoners during his country’s brutal colonial war in Algeria decades earlier died Tuesday in La Vancelle, France. He was 95.” *

What it didn’t say was that he also, in that long and evidently happy life, trained other countries’ armies in the lessons of the Battle of Algiers, including United States Army Special Forces, who applied what they’d learned in the Vietnam era Phoenix Program.  That Program was designed “to identify and ‘neutralize’ (via infiltration, capture, terrorism, torture, and assassination) the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Viet Cong.)”

It also fails to mention that he helped train the forces of Latin American dictators during the 1970s, including those of Chile. His Wikipedia entry says that “Aussaresses moved to Brazil in 1973 during the military dictatorship, where he maintained very close links with the military…”

“According to General Manuel Contreras, former head of the Chilean DINA, [secret police.] Chilean officers trained in Brazil under Aussaresses’ orders, and advised the South American juntas on counter-insurrection warfare and the use of torture that was widely used against leftist opponents to the military regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay.” [Wikipedia]

In his book, Special Services: Algeria 1955-57 (English version:  Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-57), “the general wrote of beating prisoners; of attaching electrodes to their ears or testicles and gradually increasing the intensity of the electrical charge; of pouring water over their faces until they either spoke or drowned. Whether a captive talked or not, he said, he usually had him executed anyway, often doing the job himself. [New York Times]

In addition to “routine” torture in Algeria, he ordered his subordinates to fake the suicides of captured leaders, and once had one of his officers throw an Algerian lawyer from a sixth floor window.

Though the French government denied knowing of his abuses, Aussaresses claimed that the tortures and killings were a matter of policy and were well known to his superiors, both in the military and in the civilian government.

Photos of Aussaresses frequently show him with a rather dashing looking eyepatch, but his injury was not incurred in combat, of which he evidently saw little in person. It was the result of a cataract operation gone wrong.

* Other sources compared France’s “stunned” response to Captain Renault’s in the Humphrey Bogart movie, Casablanca:
…………CAPTAIN RENAULT: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
…………CROUPIER (hands Renault a pile of cash): Your winnings, sir.


The Past, Still Present in Today’s Chile

2013 December 14

Chile: Living in the Present,
Coming to Grips with the Past

On Sunday, citizens of Chile will vote in a presidential election runoff between two childhood friends, Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. The candidates’ fathers, both generals in the Chilean military, were friends and neighbors as well. Yet, when the military overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, Alberto Bachelet remained loyal to the constitutional government, while Fernando Matthei joined the plotters. Bachelet died of a heart attack after being tortured in the basement of the Air War Academy, where his old friend Matthei had been appointed Director. The two daughter’s family histories mirror the tensions and contradictions that characterize a Chile still coming to grips with its recent history.

In September of this year, my wife, Emily, and I had the opportunity to visit Chile as part of a delegation organized by School of the Americas Watch. We were there to memorialize the fortieth anniversary Chile 4756BDRof what Chilenos refer to – at least in talking to us Americans – as “our 9/11.” September 11th for the people of Chile is the anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup against the popularly elected president Salvador Allende.

The 17-year dictatorship that followed the coup claimed at least 40,000 victims – that’s the official figure of those known to have been detained, murdered, or “disappeared.” Human rights activists say that hundreds of thousands more were tortured in the years that followed the takeover. An estimated 200,000 Chileans were exiled.

According to the report of the Chilean National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, also known as the Valech Report, more than 1,100 sites “were utilized as centers of detention, torture and extermination.” They ranged from hospitals and soccer stadiums to police stations and private homes. There were more than 250 such sites in the capital, Santiago, alone. We visited several.

Victims in such sites were blindfolded, kept naked, and beaten to the point of broken bones, shocked by being tied to electrified metal-framed beds, hung in stress positions, burned with cigarettes, raped, forced to witness the torture and rape of other prisoners. At least 1,000 were simply “disappeared.”

Casa de Jose Domingo Cañas No. 1367 was part of a circuit of torture centers, in which prisoners were moved about for different levels or types of torture, by different torturers. Some had specialties; here, it was sexual violence, and interrogation of Chile 4418BDRmembers of the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left). At least 58 men and women have been identified as having been killed here, or disappeared after being tortured. We were told that, at the time, children in the neighborhood begged their parents to do something about the screams coming from the center. There was nothing they could do then, of course, but many of the present-day neighbors have volunteered to help develop a memorial on the site.

The original house was destroyed by a subsequent owner to prevent its becoming a focus of criminal investigation.  In its place is now a small but elegant modern museum and community center. The shell of the one-time swimming pool remains as well (it was used to torture prisoners with simulated drowning) along with a large, spreading palm tree. “If only it could talk,” says Carolina, the center’s director. Carolina’s own father was arrested by Air Force troops on 9/11/73, when she was 10 years old. He was killed later that month.  She says that her family became “lepers,” but her mother, who had been a professor, saw to it that they were educated nonetheless. “Life has marked me,” she says of her work at the Center. “It has obligated me.”

One of the centers that had the greatest impact on me was Casa Nido 20, in a residential neighborhood of Santiago – perhaps because it seemed so typically and quietly suburban, down to the ornamental weathervane on its chimney. Yet in this small, two or three-bedroom home, the Chilean Air Force operated a clandestine torture center for at least two years. Casa Chile 4188BDRNido 20 is now the “Casa Museo Alberto Bachelet Martinez,” named for the presidential candidate’s father. It is one of a number of torture centers that have been restored as “memory sites” by committees of citizens. Inside, they have replicated some of the mechanisms of torture, including a metal bed frame where prisoners were strapped down and shocked with electrical currents, and a tiny closet where victims were locked up, in extreme stress positions. The torturers played loud music to mask the screams of the tortured. I asked one of our guides whether people in the neighborhood were aware of what was going on inside: he said that no one will admit to having known, “but they always passed by on the other side of the street.”

Our guide at the former Tres y Cuatro Alamos Prison, Carlos, told us that he himself had once been a “guest.” Now he works with an organization that seeks to have it recognized as a national historical site. They’re also trying to locate and register the names of everyone who passed through the facility, and now have about 3,000 out of a potential 6,000 names. Converted Chile 4140BDRfrom a Catholic retreat center, the prison and torture center was run by a Carabiñero officer described as a “psychopath and misogynist famous for his cruelty.” Carlos, who was 28 years old at the time, was held incommunicado and beaten severely – suffering seven broken ribs and a dislocated kneecap. He told us that the other prisoners helped him to survive, “and now I can joke about it.” There was also a fourth unit at Tres y Cuatro Alamos, run by the DINA (secret police). Prisoners who entered that section were never seen again.

We were not allowed to take photographs inside, because part of the complex is currently in use as a prison and rehabilitation facility for young offenders. “The children say they hear things at night,” Carlos told us. He said that, to him, having a youth facility here is “like having a childcare center in Auschwitz.” Yet the center appeared to be humanely run, at least from what we could see. “Life is a great irony,” one of the youth workers told us. “This is still a place of great pain, but we are hoping to transform it.”

As we visited these and other sites, I was frequently reminded that what I was seeing and hearing about is not ancient history. The middle-aged men and women telling us what happened in their country were not describing something they learned about in school; they were talking about their own experiences, the experiences of their families. Everywhere we Chile 4008BDRtraveled we saw posters for the coming election, and were reminded again of the family histories of the two leading candidates.

One afternoon, while eating lunch at a harborside restaurant, we saw an apparition through the offshore mist: the beautiful four-masted sailing ship, Esmeralda. Today it represents Chile at “tall ship” events around the world. Few viewers know that, from 1973 to 1980, it was a floating prison, where more than a hundred prisoners were tortured – in at least one case, to death.

I felt the tension when we were walking the streets of Santiago or Valparaiso on our own. Talking to people in shops, or asking directions on the street, I wondered which of these mostly friendly people supported the actions of the dictatorship; which of them were its victims. Which of them might have turned their neighbor in to the secret police? Which of them spent time in prison, or in internal exile in Patagonia? Who prospered, and who had to flee the country, leaving friends and family behind? When we visited torture centers, tucked away in quiet middle-class neighborhoods, I wondered: what did the neighbors hear? What did they know?

Yet it also occurred to me that these are questions to which many of those who live here know the answers. They know which neighbor or friend turned their father or sister in to the DINA. They know which bank teller, shopkeeper, school teacher was a spy for the secret police. Or maybe they don’t know, and can only suspect…

With the unreconciled past still very much alive in the present, tomorrow’s turnout at the polls, and the choices that Chilenos make about their leadership for the next four years, may have a significant impact on the country’s future.



The military junta headed by Augusto Pinochet held power for 17 years, in part through the exercise of unrestrained violence, torture and murder. In this post I have focused solely on the aspects of our trip related to that reality – and to some extent on the long-term impact of torture on Chilean society. For a broader picture, please see the following posts by Emily Achtenberg, for the North American Congress on Latin America:

In Chile, Remembering 9/11: Reflections
Chile’s 40 Year Anniversary in Photos: Recovering Memories
Chile’s 40 Year Anniversary in Photos: Resistance, Past and Present


Asociación de Familiares de Ejecutados Politicos / Association of Family Members of Those Killed in Political Executions

Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos / Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared


U.S. Didn’t Always See Mandela as a Hero

2013 December 10

Changing Times or Faulty Memories?


Nelson Mandela was on the U.S. “terrorist watch list” until 2008 – five years ago – according to the Washington Post. Try to keep that in your head while you listen to the effusive praise coming out of our halls of power this week. Reporter Catlin Dewey writes, “It’s easy to forget that the U.S., in particular, hasn’t always had such a friendly relationship with Mandela.” In the 1980’s, both the Reagan administration in the U.S., and Thatcher’s in Britain, were allied with South Africa’s apartheid regime, and regarded Mandela’s African National Congress as “encouraging communism.” Both Britain and the U.S. were major trading partners with  apartheid South Africa.

For those of you who weren’t around during that period, please also keep in mind that apartheid didn’t just mean keeping people “separate but equal” — the phrase often used to justify racial segregation in the United States. It was a system of near total control and brutalization of the majority of the country’s population by its minority. For one quick “snapshot” of what that meant on the ground, take a look at contributing SATorturewriter Margaret Green’s report on the involvement of white healthcare professionals in the torture of prisoners, both blacks and their white supporters, in South African prisons.

On his blog, Dispatches from the Edge, Conn Hallinan recalls – from a west coast focus – the struggles of many in the student movement to raise consciousness about apartheid South Africa at a time when their interest was focused on Vietnam. As he says, “It is hard to get Americans to look beyond their shores unless a lot of body bags are coming home.”

Hallinan describes the long, frustrating, but ultimately successful campaign of students at the University of California in Berkeley to force the university to divest – to pull its invested endowment funds – from South Africa. It’s a struggle that was waged by students in other parts of the country as well, though it may be true, as Hallinan claims, that Berkeley was in the vanguard.

“The turning point in the fight against apartheid came in 1984, when students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley demanded that the biggest university in the world divest its billions of dollars of investments in companies that did business with South Africa…

“The students built shantytowns on campus, besieged the Board of Regents and took over historic Sproul Plaza for six weeks. The University responded in typical fashion: tear gas, arrests, expulsions and stonewalling, all of which was like trying to douse a fire with gasoline. Civil rights groups and trade unionists joined the demonstrations, along with people throughout the Bay Area…

“The pressure was just too much, even for the powerful and wealthy Board of Regents. In 1986 UC withdrew $3 billion from companies doing business with South Africa, dwarfing modest divestment decisions by universities like Harvard. [Congressman Ron] Dellums re-introduced the divestment legislation, and in 1986 the U.S. Congress passed it. It was the death knell for apartheid.”

(But, as my wife has reminded me, it was our own town, Boston, that was the first city in the United States to impose sanctions on banks and other companies that did business with the apartheid regime, and Boston was the first stop on Mandela’s triumphal visit to the U.S. in 1990, after he was finally released from prison. In the header photo above, he’s flanked by Senator Ted Kennedy and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn during that visit.)

As Hallinan notes, under growing domestic and international pressure, the U.S. did eventually legislate trade sanctions against the apartheid state but, as Mandela’s then wife Winnie said at the time, “[They] continue to condone the activities of thSArealitye South African government…It appears that their interests in this country far outweigh their so-called abhorrence of apartheid.”

In U.S. News & World Report, Steven Nelson notes that, in 1986, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are still serving today voted against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The Act demanded Mandela’s freedom and sought to impose economic sanctions against Apartheid’s minority white rule. Representatives Joe Barton of Texas, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, Howard Coble of North Carolina, and Ralph Hall of Texas, all Republicans, though Hall was a Democrat at the time, voted against the bill, which had previously passed the Senate. The legislation nonetheless passed, but was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. On the vote to override the President’s veto, Barton, Rogers, and Coble once again voted “no,” and Hall failed to cast a vote.

This week, Barton, Rogers, and Coble all praised Mandela – without any acknowledgement of their previous refusals to demand his freedom. Barton noted that “The world lost a great leader.” Rogers went a bit further, saying that “The world has lost a remarkable leader.” And Coble said that meeting Mandela “was one of the highlights of my life.” Hall had no comment.


NOTE: As I was writing this piece, friends sent me a link to Mandela’s statement from the prisoner’s dock during the Rivonia Trial, which resulted in his being sentenced to life in prison (he ultimately served for twenty-seven years). It is a remarkable document. The struggle of the African National Congress, he said in his conclusion:

“…is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

SOME OTHER SOURCES: A couple of other interesting resources I came across in writing this post are the African Activist Archive at Michigan State University — for example see here for some background information about groups involved in the Boston area divestment campaign — and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.