The first UN investigator to be allowed to visit Guantánamo has called on the US government to provide urgent rehabilitation treatment for the men it tortured in the wake of 9/11 to repair their severe physical and psychological injuries and meet its commitments under international law.
In an interview with the Guardian, the UN monitor on human rights while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, said that the US had a responsibility to redress the harms it inflicted on its Muslim torture victims. Existing medical treatment, both at the prison camp in Cuba and for detainees released to other countries, was inadequate to deal with multiple problems such as traumatic brain injuries, permanent disabilities, sleep disorders, flashbacks and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“These men are all survivors of torture, a unique crime under international law, and in urgent need of care,” she said. “Torture breaks a person, it is intended to render them helpless and powerless so that they cease to function psychologically, and in my conversations both with current and former detainees I observed the harms it caused.”
In February, Ní Aoláin was granted unprecedented access to the detention center at Guantánamo where 30 men are still held today. In the report of her four-day visit, she found that the failure to provide specialist care focusing on redressing the long-term impact of torture had a cumulative effect that amounted to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” in violation of the US government’s obligations under international conventions.
“Without exception, each individual I met exhibits medical conditions relating to the physical harm they experienced from rendition and torture, or profound psychological distress such as anxiety, depression, extreme trauma and suicidal ideation,” Ní Aoláin told the Guardian.
The most extreme abuses occurred up to 20 years ago during the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program of Muslim terror suspects. At least 119 men had torture methods inflicted on them, euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
The UN special rapporteur said that despite the passage of time the physical and psychological fall-out was ongoing.
“The dividing line between past and present is very narrow for these men. In some, it is non-existent: they inhabit bodies that are profoundly harmed by acts of torture,” she explained.
Ní Aoláin, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and at Queens University in Belfast, said that paradoxically the US was a world leader in devising treatment for torture survivors. The US military, as well as academic centers working with asylum seekers from around the globe, had advanced scientific understanding of how to help victims cope.
Yet the knowledge gained by the US was not applied to those subjected to its own torture.
“The US has some of the best torture treatment facilities and capability in the world, it exports it to others,” she said. “But regrettably that hasn’t been used for the men currently detained at Guantánamo, and not a single man who has been released from the detention facility has had adequate rehabilitation.”
A key demand made by the UN rapporteur is that the detainees should be treated by independent medical personnel. Currently, they are seen by military doctors who wear uniform – that alone is triggering.
“For these detainees, uniform is associated with a profound lack of trust and a history of misuse of medical treatment. A person who has been tortured can lose their trust in the entire system,” she said.
The CIA’s torture program was created in 2002 by two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, basing the plan partly on experiments on dogs which when given electric shocks developed “learned helplessness”.
The UN monitor was allowed to visit all categories of Guantánamo detainee including the group of five so-called “high-value” individuals who are accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks. She is not naming those she met, nor giving details of their condition, for privacy reasons.
Some detainees have publicly talked about their long-lasting torture-induced problems. Ammar al Baluchi, one of the “high-value prisoners”, has revealed through his lawyer that he suffers from traumatic brain injury from having been subjected to “walling” where his head was smashed repeatedly against the wall.
His symptoms include headaches, dizziness, difficulty thinking and performing simple tasks. The impairments are expected to worsen over time, his lawyer said, adding that his client is also unable to sleep for more than two hours at a time having been sleep-deprived as a torture technique.
Ní Aoláin argued that helping US torture victims overcome their ailments is the right thing to do on a number of levels. It is right for the individuals themselves who have for too long been left to suffer alone.
It is right for the US, which has had its standing around the world as a human rights leader damaged as a result of its rendition program, and because of Guantánamo which she said acts as a symbol of torture.
It is right too, she insisted, for the families of the 2,977 people who were murdered on 9/11 with whom she said she has a “profound and personal commitment”. Ní Aoláin said that one of the pillars of her UN mandate was that victims of terrorism have a right to remedy and accountability for the murder of their loved ones.
Torture, she said, had stripped 9/11 victims’ families of that right. By authorizing torture, the US had in effect ensured that the families will never have their day in court because the cases against those charged with planning 9/11 have become snarled up in legal arguments over evidence obtained under duress.
Defenders of the US torture program have often justified the practice in the name of the victims. But Ní Aoláin said the opposite was true – the victims were betrayed.
“The victims of terrorism have lost their right to the ultimate remedy for the violations of their loved ones on 9/11 – a trial,” she said. “What was done in the aftermath of 9/11 was not just harmful to the men, it was deeply, profoundly harmful to the families themselves.”
Source: The Guardian