Bad Medecine: Physicians and Torture

By Narayan, Navin | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Bad Medecine: Physicians and Torture


Narayan, Navin, Harvard International Review


Close to sundown, a university student stepped off the bus only to be seized by the Ankara police. His identity withheld, the student later described his brutal treatment at the hands of the Turkish police who suspected him of illegal political activity.

The student's torturers separated his shoulders, sprayed him with pressurized water, and subjected him to electrocution of his extremities and genitalia. After twenty-one days of persistent abuse, the police complied with prison rules and granted the Turkish student a medical exam with the prison physician. During the examination, the student requested from the physician a medical report detailing the wounds he had received. In response, the physician scoffed, "Even if you came in on a stretcher, I would not give you a positive torture report," and then concluded his half-hearted examination. The physician's negative report not only disregarded the torture victim's humanity but also disproved any future testimony the student might have given to indict the police.

The victim's experience with the Turkish physician is not isolated. Across the globe and over time, physicians have participated in acts of torture and other related human rights violations. The Nuremberg trials first opened the world's eyes to Dr. Josef Mengele's hideous Nazi "medical" experiments. In addition to overseeing ovens and gas showers in concentration camps, Nazi doctors injected prisoners with live typhus organisms and performed crippling surgery. Unfortunately, medical complicity in torture has continued since Mengele's time. Modern regimes throughout South America employ doctors' anatomical knowledge to monitor the effectiveness of torture and to develop new torture techniques. In the Soviet Union, psychiatrists diagnosed religious and political dissenters with schizophrenia, a blanket term which justified severe and extended incarceration. Such psychiatric abuse persists in regions of Russia today. Many surgeons practicing in the Islamic world, especially in Pakistan, also merit criticism. When called upon to do so by Islamic law, these surgeons amputate the hands and feet of convicted thieves.

The cooperation of the medical community in torture has become pandemic and a valuable asset for the world's most despotic regimes. Under the scrutiny of truth commissions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other investigatory mechanisms, torture has evolved to leave less-detectable somatic scars while increasing in physical and psychological brutality. …

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