Psychological torture just as bad, study finds

Times Staff Writer

Degrading treatment and psychological manipulation cause as much emotional suffering and long-term mental damage as physical torture, researchers reported Monday.

Psychiatric evaluations of 279 victims of torture and other abuses from the Balkan wars of the 1990s showed that both types of ill treatment led to similarly high rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The victims themselves rated the psychological tactics on par with the physical abuses they suffered.

The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, grew out of questions about how the Bush administration has interpreted international and U.S. laws as they relate to interrogation of suspected terrorists.

The administration has sought to narrow the definition of torture to only the most extreme forms of physical abuse and psychological tactics resulting in severe, long-term harm. It has argued that some measures -- banned under international law as cruel, degrading and inhuman -- are acceptable.


The government has softened its stance somewhat, but the debate has continued, with human rights advocates suggesting that the U.S. is too lax in defining “severe” mental suffering and in restricting interrogation methods used by the CIA.

The study shows that “there is no such thing as ‘Torture Lite,’ ” said Dr. Steven Miles of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, who was not involved in the research.

In response to questions about the study, government officials said U.S. interrogators followed national and international laws on treatment of detainees.

“It would not be appropriate for the Department of Justice to speculate about whether a particular hypothetical act might constitute torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” Erik Ablin, a spokesman there, said in a statement.

In the wake of scandals at U.S. detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the military rewrote its field manual.

Several interrogation techniques were explicitly banned, including placing sacks over the heads of prisoners, intimidating detainees with military dogs and withholding food and medical care, said Army Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for the Defense Department.

Some of those techniques were among the tactics addressed in the study.

The researchers, led by Metin Basoglu, a psychiatrist at King’s College in London, interviewed 279 people who suffered various forms of ill treatment as the former Yugoslav federation collapsed into war.

The subjects, from Sarajevo and Banja Luka in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rijeka in Croatia and Belgrade, the Serbian capital, endured clear examples of torture -- such as rape, beatings and electrical shocks -- as well as a litany of indignities and psychological tactics, including forced nudity, forced standing, cold showers and blindfolding.

The subjects were asked to rank each abuse on a scale of zero to four in terms of the distress it caused.

The worst physical tortures averaged between 3.2 and 3.9. Falling within the same range were several other forms of mistreatment, including isolation, sham executions, death threats and being pelted with urine or feces.

“Nonphysical stressors during captivity were as distressing and traumatic as stressors involving physical pain,” Basoglu said.

The interviews were conducted an average of eight years after the mistreatment.

More than 55% of the subjects were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and 17% were clinically depressed. It made no difference whether the abuse was a clear case of physical torture or forms of psychological manipulation.

What mattered most, Basoglu said, was the degree to which the victim felt a loss of control.

The finding supports suggestions by other experts that people trained to endure torture, such as insurgents or prisoners of war, suffer the least long-term damage.