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Physicians & Torture

2011 October 22

Disciplining Physicians for Complicity in Torture:
The Historical Record is Not Encouraging

Following up on my post regarding the complicity of South African medical professionals in torture during apartheid (courtesy of guest blogger Margaret Green), I’ve come across an excellent article by UC Berkeley law student Summer Volkmer. In Sanctions for Torture: Domestic Medical Associations Take Action (June, 2010), Volkmer first notes that neither the Obama administration nor the American Psychological Association has taken any steps to discipline psychologists involved in the mistreatment and outright torture of U.S. detainees in the so-called war on terror.
            Looking at this issue internationally, she finds only a few exceptions to this pattern, but the exceptions are enlightening: 

Although most medical associations endorse codes forbidding their members from complicity with torture, relatively few have taken steps to enforce these standards. However, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, in the midst of (and after) authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America and the Apartheid regime in South Africa, medical associations in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and South Africa took steps to hold doctors accountable for their roles in torture and other human rights abuses. 

In Brazil, despite the military dictatorship’s passage of an amnesty law protecting physicians and other human rights abusers, the country’s Regional Medical Councils have nonetheless taken action against a number of healthcare professionals. For example, in 1988, a Regional Council struck Psychiatrist Amilcar Lobo off its register for having participated in torture. Lobo had acknowledged preparing detainees for torture, “testing their physical capacity for interrogation, and reviving them when they became unconscious. The Federal Council affirmed the decision…”
            Despite resistance and harassment, Brazil’s councils, working with the human rights organization Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again), “have continued to pursue accountability for doctors who participated in torture during the military regime.” By Volkmer’s count, the groups have brought complaints against more than 200 physicians resulting, so far, in disciplinary proceedings against at least 40 of them.

Under Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship, from 1973 to 1981, the military junta appointed the leadership of the Chilean Medical Association, which consequently was silent about the widespread involvement of military physicians in torture. In 1981, the junta allowed the CMA to again elect its own leaders, but at the same time took away its licensing authority. Nonetheless – and, as the author notes, “often at great personal and professional risk” – its ethics department investigated and suspended or expelled a number of members, even though it could not prevent them from continuing to practice.
            One of these was army physician Carlos Hérnan Pérez Castrol, “for falsely certifying that a prisoner was in good physical condition…after being blindfolded, physically beaten, burned with cigarette butts, and subjected to electric shocks. The CMA was not persuaded by Dr. Perez’s defense that he was present at the torture sessions to help, rather than harm, patients.” [NOTE: See the end of this post for an explanation of the illustration above.]

In South Africa under apartheid: In contrast to the Latin American cases, under apartheid “the South African Medical and Dental Council did not fully investigate doctors complicit in prisoner abuses until a court ordered it to do so.” That included surgeons Ivor Lang and Benjamin Tucker, who failed to report or treat the fatal head injuries inflicted on Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko during police interrogation. Despite “visible injuries, strange movements, and slurred speech,” as well as findings of blood in Biko’s brain fluid, Tucker allowed Biko to be shipped out to another facility 750 miles away – where he was pronounced dead.
            An “inquiry committee of SAMDC, which did have licensing authority, dismissed a claim against the doctors for lack of evidence, a finding which was later addoped by the full Council. However, in response to a petition by several doctors, the Pretoria Supreme Court ruled that there was prima facie evidence of misconduct and ordered SAMDC to investigate further. Only then did the organization find the doctors guilty of improper (and in Tucker’s case of “disgraceful”) conduct.

The associations did not always act swiftly or decisively, or as in the case of South Africa, even voluntarily. However, through their actions, the organizations sent a message that the profession would not tolerate complicity in human rights abuses by their members. In each instance individuals, either from inside or outside a professional organization’s institutional framework, worked through professional associations to hold physicians accountable for human rights abuses, and in the words of the Chilean Medical Association, to “preserve the dignity of the medical profession.”

[NOTE: Volkmer also discusses the case of Uruguay, which I have omitted here.]

The image accompanying the section above about Chile is an Arpillera, an embroidered indictment of torture under the Pinochet dictatorship. I found it on a post by Hannah Bullivant for the Craftivist Collective blog (“Craft+Activism=Craftivism.”) Developed by Chilean women, these Arpilleras expressed resistance to the regime – and were sometimes a means of smuggling messages from prison. See Bullivant’s post for other examples and descriptions, and for more information about this art/protest form, see Kristen Walker’s article on the site of COHA, the Council of Hemispheric Affairs.


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