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ISSUE 118 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/15/2005

Panel discusses Abu Ghraib

By Tiffany Ayres
News Editor

Friday, April 15, 2005

Gloria MacWilliams-Brooks ’06, member of the St. Olaf chapter of Amnesty International, opened a panel discussion on torture as a political tool in Viking Theater with the question, "How seriously will other nations take issues of their human rights violations if the United States doesn’t take responsibility for its violations?"

MacWilliams-Brooks addressed faculty, staff, students and Northfield community members who came to hear the panel. She prefaced the introduction of the speakers, Mary Kelly, director of the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) and Dr. Steven Miles ‘72, professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School Center for Bioethics, by explaining that attention to torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay has waned even though the issue remains unresolved.

Kelly began by sharing the story of one of the center’s clients. "Fatima [not her real name] lived a conventional life in Africa until authorities told her she needed to have her baby daughter circumcised," Kelly said.

She related Fatima’s tale of refusal; she was ostracized in her village and gang-raped by officials who wanted to punish her. Fatima was released after her ordeal, but her husband and children were soon targeted. The family fled to the United States to seek political asylum and was referred to the CVT.

Fatima was enrolled in counseling at the center, received dental care to repair the extensive damage her torturers inflicted and began taking English classes. Her family was paired with a community guide who helped them learn to manage tasks such as grocery shopping and navigating the bus system.

The CVT has concentrated its efforts on changing policies that promote the use of torture. The center was aware of the conditions at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay as early as mid-December 2002 but was not allowed access to decision makers until the torture scandal broke early last summer.

The center also works on educating citizens by dispelling the "Eight Myths of Torture," which range from proof that "confessions" gained through torture provide unreliable information to proof that psychological torture ("torture light" as Kelly called it) is more damaging and lasting than physical torture. "It’s possible to recover from torture, but it is still deeply damaging to a person’s entire life," Kelly said.

Miles then steered the discussion towards the role physicians played at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, questioning the ethics of military medical practice. Miles began by showing a photograph from Abu Ghraib, pointing out the bruises on the detainees. He then pointed out that a military nurse was also in the picture.

Miles proceeded to explain that, according to witness reports, the nurse was in the room attending to one of the detainees after a U.S. soldier hit him in the chest and the detainee complained of heart pain and could not stand. The reports state that the nurse gave the man an asthma inhaler, told the soldiers the man was faking and did not report the incident.

Miles then explained that throughout his investigation of government and medical documents available from the Abu Ghraib records he found that none of the medical personnel had been investigated. "I have found only two medical officers who raised questions about the treatment of prisoners," he said.

Referring to the tenets of the Geneva Convention, Miles listed several areas where military medical personnel failed to comply with standard requirements. He also referred the audience to several CIA studies showing torture to be counterproductive.

"We cannot force other nations to conform to the Geneva Convention if we ourselves do not," he said. "The argument that this war is different does not mean that rules against torture go away."

The discussion concluded with a question and answer period where many of the questions focused on the issue of how the U.S. came to use torture.

In regards to policy change, Kelly stated that a bipartisan approach is necessary and that people should support anyone in any party who is trying to do something to prevent the use of torture as a political tool.

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