Of human bondage

The kinds of torture used at Abu Ghraib stem from techniques common to colonial imperialists, Stalin's secret police and the Gestapo.

Topics: Torture, Abu Ghraib

Three of the torture techniques used at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and in U.S. prisons in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are choking with water, exposure to extremes of heat or cold, and forced standing and other “stress positions.” Use of these techniques by the United States in the past two years was approved by military commanders such as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez at the instigation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and possibly other administration officials. Memos from the Department of Justice and the Pentagon reveal that legal counsel sought justification for breaking the Geneva Conventions that forbid use of such methods, a process that appears to have been driven by the White House. Whatever investigations ultimately reveal about who authorized the use of torture, the history of torture techniques is easy to trace.

Choking with water: For centuries, interrogators used water to cause pain in two ways, “pumping” and “choking.” Pumping involves forcibly filling the stomach and intestines with water. A garden hose in the mouth is sufficient. This technique (the “Tormento de Toca” in Spanish) was one of the most fearful tortures of the Inquisition. Choking pushes pumping one step further by preventing breathing.

Americans were the first to use pumping for interrogation in the 20th century. In 1902, during the Spanish-American War, U.S. soldiers put funnels in the mouths of Filipinos to force water into their organs. In pumping, victims’ organs stretch and convulse, causing the most intense pain that visceral tissue can experience. William Howard Taft, governor of the Philippines, carelessly conceded to the Senate that pumping was the policy in some cases.

Because water torture left few marks, it was easy to dismiss. President Theodore Roosevelt privately called pumping a mild torture, observing that no one had been seriously damaged. Italian dictator Mussolini’s police adopted pumping in the 1920s, as did the Japanese military police (Kempeitai) in the 1930s. In 1939, British police used pumping in Mandatory Palestine.

In 1943, “Masuy,” a Belgian who ran Gestapo black market operations in France, made choking his signature technique. Masuy’s henchmen held the victim’s head under water while Masuy offered cognac and questioned the victim. Masuy maintained at his trial in 1947 that choking was “more humane” than plucking nails. The Gestapo, not known for its humanity, authorized this method for Norway and Czechoslovakia in 1945 as the resistance struggles there intensified.



After the war, French police interrogators used choking to produce false confessions in Madagascar (1947) and France (1947-1948). The technique also appeared in Vietnam, where it was known as the “submarine.” By the late 1950s, French military intelligence used both pumping and choking in interrogation. They also compressed bloated stomachs violently, forcing water back out through all the orifices, including the eyes.

By the 1960s, Francisco Franco’s police in Spain and many Latin American torturers were using choking, which has become increasingly common in the past 20 years as a supplement to electrotorture in countries that torture routinely. (In a technique reportedly used by the CIA after 9/11, the victim is strapped to a board and then forcibly pushed under water till he nearly chokes to death, in a method known as “waterboarding.”)

Forced standing: Stress positions include Japanese kneeling positions, Soviet “sitting” positions and the Israeli shabeh techniques. But the American form draws on the oldest technique of all, forced standing (called the planton in Latin America and the stoika in the Soviet Union). The hooded man in the famous photo from Abu Ghraib was kept standing on a box for a whole evening. Like water torture, forced standing leaves no marks.

Two experts commissioned by the CIA in 1956, Harold Wolff and Lawrence Hinkle, described the effects of forced standing: The ankles and feet swell to twice their size within 24 hours, and moving becomes agonizing. Large blisters develop. The heart rate increases, and some people faint. The kidneys eventually shut down.

In the early 20th century, forced standing was a prescribed field punishment for soldiers in West European armies. Soldiers in the British Army referred to it as the “crucifixion,” and French legionnaires called it the silo.

By the 1920s, forced standing was a routine police torture in America. In 1931, the National Commission on Lawless Enforcement of the Law found numerous American police departments using forced standing to coerce confessions. In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s NKVD used forced standing to coerce seemingly voluntary confessions for show trials.

The British used forced standing as early as 1937-1939 on Arab and Jewish prisoners in Mandatory Palestine. The Gestapo routinely used it as a punishment in concentration camps, sometimes creating tiny, narrow cells where prisoners had to stand all night.

In the mid-20th century, torturers learned how to use the swelling and blistering to cause more pain. The Chinese wrapped the feet in gauze, which squeezed painfully as the feet swelled. Brazilian police made prisoners stand on the edges of cans or bricks, causing excruciating pain to the feet. During apartheid in South Africa, forced standing was the third most common torture technique after beating and electricity.

South African and Brazilian police also commonly used hooding, a variation on forced standing. In the 1970s, Brazilians added electroshock — which they called the “Vietnam,” combining techniques used by the Communists and non-Communist forces during the Vietnam War. When hooded victims began to collapse in exhaustion from standing, jolts of electricity would make their feet stick to the cans and force them to stand up straight.

Sweating and sweatboxes: During the Civil War, the sweatbox was a cell near a very hot stove that produced intense heat. By the early 20th century, sweatboxes were dark, solitary and very cold, hot or wet. A related police practice in Europe and the United States in the 1920s was known as sweating, in which detectives took turns interrogating suspects for hours or days (in a stifling interrogation room, hence the term). They kept them awake by shining bright lights into their eyes, shaking them or making constant noise. Stalin’s police also used forms of the sweatbox and sweating, using them, like U.S. police, to generate false confessions for public trials.

Sleep deprivation reduces a body’s tolerance for physical pain, causing deep aches first in the lower part of the body, followed by similar pains in the upper body. Sleep-deprived people are also highly suggestible (a condition not unlike drunkenness or hypnosis), making sleep deprivation ideal for inducing false confessions.

The Gestapo was the first to use sleep deprivation to gather information. In 1942, Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller authorized “sharpened interrogation” for terrorists, approving sleep deprivation, starvation, exhaustion exercises, regulated beating and confinement in dark cells — but only to gather intelligence on those who had “plans hostile to the state,” not to get confessions of guilt.

Gestapo torture actually went beyond these methods, but Mueller’s order was the only one the Allies found. When confronted with the order at Nuremberg, Werner Best, the Nazi governor of Denmark, objected to what he considered the hypocritical criticism of an American investigator. “Similar methods were used in other countries,” Best said.

Indeed, American police commonly used sweating on suspects in the early 20th century. In 1941 Tennessee police subjected one suspect, Ashcraft, to sleep deprivation and interrogation for 36 hours until he confessed he had killed his wife. In Ashcraft v. Tennessee (1944), the Supreme Court did not simply toss out the confession as unacceptable in any democratic society; it linked sweating directly to the practices of “certain foreign nations dedicated to an opposite policy,” namely, “physical or mental torture.”

Yet sweating remains a common technique in many countries. After 9/11 the U.S. military authorized sleep deprivation for up to 72 hours, far longer than what Ashcraft was subjected to. The U.S. interrogators and military police who applied these methods at Abu Ghraib may not have known it, but they were acting in a tradition that includes colonial imperialists, Stalin’s secret police and the Gestapo.

Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, was a 2003 Carnegie scholar. He is the author of "Torture and Democracy," to be published by Princeton University Press in 2005.

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