Health beat: Can doctors help stop torture?

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2013 - 5:02 PM

 

Dr. Steven Miles vividly remembers the notorious 2004 photograph of U.S. soldiers grinning beside a pile of naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

The startling image left him wondering: Why didn’t the prison’s medical personnel blow the whistle on the abuses?

Since then, Miles, a physician and medical ethicist at the University of Minnesota, has made it his personal mission to expose the role of doctors in the torture of prisoners worldwide and to hold them accountable.

His latest salvo, launched last week, is a website called the Doctors Who Torture Accountability Project (www.doctorswhotorture.com).

Miles has created an interactive world map, with red dots identifying dozens of nations — including the United States, Germany and France — that have done nothing to punish doctors allegedly involved in torturing prisoners since 1950.

By Miles’ count, only six countries have taken consistent action against doctors for past sins of torture, four of them in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay). A few others, such as Greece and Pakistan, have made “token” efforts to do so.

The rest, he argues, have effectively turned a blind eye.

Doctors and torture? It happens more than anyone imagines, Miles argues. “Governments today need doctors in order to torture,” said Miles, author of a 2006 book, “Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror.”

In prisons such as Abu Ghraib, he said, doctors were brought in to patch wounds, and in some cases falsify death certificates, of tortured prisoners.

In East Germany, he said, “the doctors were running torture chambers.” And even today, doctors in India are silent about the beating of prisoners, Miles said. He argues that, in a country such as India, “if the doctors decided to put the brakes on this, they could. [But] they’re not.”

Miles believes that if doctors fear being held accountable, through the courts or medical licensing boards, they’ll be more willing to speak out against abuses.

“It makes them human rights monitors in prison,” he said.

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