A history of torture

Clive Stafford Smith examines our inventive capacity for inflicting pain and terror on our fellow human.

Sleep deprivation is a venerated torture technique that is part-physical, part-psychological - and one of the many forms of torture used on Guantanamo detainees [Gallo/Getty]

The history of torture teaches us two lessons: first, that our inventive capacity for inflicting pain and terror on our fellow human is shockingly expansive. Second, that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history: similar patterns of violence and humiliation resurface with sinister regularity. Sometimes even the torturer’s rhetoric echoes down the centuries.

During the English Civil War, in the 1640s, the Earl of Clarendon came up with a novel wheeze: rather than allow those presumed to be parliamentarian enemies to claim the benefit of the rule of law, he would establish a prison on an island off the British shoreline. That way, he reasoned, they could be safely forgotten, buried along with their legal rights. When parliament later looked back on this dark chapter of British history, they passed the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 to ensure that never again would an unpopular group of people be denied justice. Clarendon was impeached by the House of Commons and fled to France, where he died in exile.

Predictably, after hundreds of years in which civilisation is deemed to have evolved, this lesson had been forgotten. Following a 1991 coup d’état in their homeland, boatloads of impoverished Haitians in leaking vessels tried to cross the treacherous Caribbean sea to claim asylum in Florida. The US coastguard intercepted them, and took them to a little-known place called Guantanamo Bay on the eastern tip of Cuba, where they kept them imprisoned until 1995. The US government argued successfully to the US Supreme Court that these dark-skinned foreigners should have no legal rights, because they were not technically on American soil. Dusting off this despicable precedent in 2002, President George Bush ordered that hundreds of bearded Muslims should be rendered to the island of Cuba and denied any recourse to the courts. His lawyers would subsequently argue in the Supreme Court that, while the environmental laws might bestow legal rights on the humble iguanas that inhabited the base – harming an animal could draw 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine – the ancient writ of habeas corpus should not reach the foreign detainees, who could apparently be abused with impunity.

The ‘naughty step’ of history

While the British would later turn up a supercilious nose at Guantanamo, it is worth remembering that they, too, frequently forgot anything they might have learned during the 17th century. As detailed by Ian Cobain in his excellent book Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, Britain secretly tortured German captives even after World War II had ended, created law-free or law-lite prisons for generations of colonial dissenters from Kenya in the 1950s and denied some individuals the right to trial by jury, through the creation of the Diplock Courts in Northern Ireland, from the 1970s onwards.

In a final irony, far from consigning the Earl of Clarendon to the ‘naughty step’ of history, his statue today stands proudly as the visitor enters parliament through St Stephen’s Hall.

I never thought I would have reason to develop a personal obsession with torture. Above all, I never thought I would sit across from a prisoner being held in the custody of the United States of America, and listen for three days to his harrowing description of a razor blade being taken to his penis over and over again, every two weeks. I thought that, with the UN Convention against Torture, the rack was now only used by despots. Surely we had all long since learned that torture was pointless, in addition to being disgusting, since a statement extracted on the rack was inherently unreliable.

How wrong could I have been? I had myself forgotten the most important lesson of history – that nobody (least of all a populist politician) learns from history.

In November 1605, a terror suspect was brought to the Tower of London. Guy Fawkes was a religious zealot, a Jesuit – thought to be the al-Qaeda of their time. Through his Gunpowder Plot, he hoped to blow up the Houses of Parliament at a time when the king and a number of Protestants were due to assemble there. The conspiracy was thwarted just in time (through honest intelligence gathered through honest means) but now savage methods were going to be employed to convince him to name his co-conspirators.

An order was delivered to the Tower from King James himself, with specific instructions for the crescendo of abuse:

“the gentler Tortures are to be first used unto him et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and so by degrees proceeding to the worst]. God Speed your good work, James”

On the first document placed before him, Fawkes’ signature is strong and bold: Guido Fawkes. After three days, his mind and body broken, Fawkes smeared his name illegibly across a pre-written confession implicating two Jesuit priests, both of whom would (albeit many decades later) be exonerated. Fawkes was then executed, burned at the stake.

Four-hundred years later the British still celebrate this macabre event in various ways: when you call a person a ‘guy’ you are referring to Guy Fawkes. Every Guy Fawkes Night, on November 5, an effigy of this terrorist (a ‘Guy’) is set on top of a bonfire as fireworks are let off in memory of the barrels of gunpowder that had been stashed in the cellars of parliament.

“Remember, remember the fifth of November!” children cry each year, but none of us remember the lessons that underlie the rhyme.

In a metaphorical copy of King James’ instructions to the torturers in the Tower, four centuries on US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld authorised the infamous ‘torture memos’ that instructed American interrogators gradually to escalate the abuse up the scale towards waterboarding.

Indeed, over the centuries, the torturer has resorted to many revolting strategies. One is the simple fact of separating the individual from the rest of humanity. The Earl of Clarendon and President Bush did not invent the idea of taking a despised hate figure to a remote legal black hole. It flowed from an earlier, medieval tradition – the oubliette. Derived from the French verb oublier, meaning ‘to forget’, this was the dark dungeon deep beneath the castle where the prisoner would be thrown, out of sight, out of mind. And he would, indeed, soon be out of his mind. In the 20th century, this would be referred to as ‘solitary confinement’; today, the Guantanamo authorities call it a ‘Single Cell Operation’. Whatever the name, the result is the same: ‘Secure Housing Unit Psychosis’ – the medical name for the prisoner’s consequent insanity.


As I interviewed an ever-increasing number of the victims of 21st century American torture, I began to research the historical antecedents of each revolting method. The zealous acolytes of Vice-President Dick Cheney were talking about ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ as if we were being kinder and gentler now. Consider one favourite of CIA interrogators much used in the early days of the Afghanistan invasion: someone who dared talk to another detainee held in the frigid mid-winter cages of Bagram air force base would be hung up by his wrists, handcuffed to the metal fence so that he could barely stand on the tips of his toes.

 Does that sound like torture? Perhaps not, until a doctor explains how the shoulders gradually dislocate, amid intense pain. The method is so effective that a recalcitrant prisoner could be persuaded to give a confession that might end in his own execution. For this reason, it was employed by the Spanish Inquisition, who called it Strappado. I began to use this word, and was gratified some months later when The New York Times adopted my use of the term.

Next, I took a small historical liberty in describing a second technique as Reverse Strappado – I am not sure that the Spanish ever truly differentiated, though it is even more excruciating: this time, the prisoner’s hands are tied behind his back before he is hung from the wrists.

Waterboarding has a particularly ironic history when we trace the 21st century US practice. It is sometimes described as simulated drowning, yet this is misleading: it is a process of actual drowning. It may or may not be carried through to the point of death, at the election of the practitioner. Most commonly (what a tragedy to think that it has been common!), a cloth is placed over the face and water is poured over the victim so that he cannot breathe. Waterboarding has been widely used for several centuries, by the Spanish Inquisition, the Gestapo, Japanese torture squads, the Khmer Rouge, the Soviet secret police, Pinochet’s death squads, Mugabe’s hired thugs and, latterly, the democratically-elected government of the United States of America.

Yet, perhaps it is the terminology that betrays the ultimate evil: the Inquisition were brutal but honest, calling it tortura del agua (‘water torture’). The Americans dressed it up when waterboarding Abu Zubaydah scores of times, referring to it as one of many ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’. That was doubtless designed to sound less savage, and give the Bush administration wriggle room to pretend that it was not actually violating the UN Convention against Torture.

But where did this Orwellian description originate? Did Dick Cheney coin the term? No. Indeed, when Adolf Hitler’s Gestapo waterboarded their victims, they referred to it as Verschärfte Vernehmung, which literally translates as ‘Enhanced Interrogation Technique’.

These specialised torture techniques should not obscure the purported utility of a good old-fashioned beating. Of course, the sophisticated sociopath will not call it anything so pedestrian. One Guantanamo euphemism is Forcible Cell Extraction (FCE), where half a dozen goons in Kevlar armour burst into a prisoner’s cell with batons and riot shields and pound him into the concrete floor. As recently as 2013, this was happening almost every day – and sometimes more than once – to my client Shaker Aamer, the last British resident held in the prison.

Much is made by the Guantanamo propaganda machine of the danger posed by detainees. In November 2013, the colonel in charge of the camps assured CBS News that all 184 Muslim maniacs in his custody would, if given half a chance, leap out of their shackles and kill a guard, notwithstanding the fact that the prisoners are outnumbered 10-to-one, have no weapons, and have never caused serious harm to a single guard in 12 years. That said, I have great sympathy with the plight of the soldiers who experience the misery of the notorious prison, but the worst injury sustained by a US serviceman occurred as a result of an FCE in 2003. Sean Baker was asked to play the role of a detainee during a training exercise; the other guards weren’t aware that they were only practicing; they thought he was a prisoner. They beat him so violently that he ended up with brain damage and had to be invalided out of the military.

Second degree torture

On my first trip to Guantanamo, my client Moazzam Begg told me that the technique he found most terrifying during his imprisonment was the threat made against his wife. In Bagram, the CIA played recorded screams of a woman in the adjoining room and told him that was his wife and that she was being beaten and raped. They had taken in another of the lessons of the Spanish Inquisition, who coined the phrase ‘second degree torture’, which they deemed much more effective. The pain of direct torture might soon result in a welcome oblivion, as the victim lost consciousness. They preferred simply to show the victim what was in store for him, and let him contemplate the rack. Better yet, they would tell their victim that only his full cooperation could end the ongoing torture of his wife or child.

This is psychological torture, which is only limited in scope by the macabre imagination of the sociopath who is conducting the interrogation. I was initially surprised when my client Binyam Mohamed told me that he feared torture by music more than the razor that had been taken to his genitals. When he explained what he meant, it made sense: with the physical torture, he said, he knew that the pain would ultimately come to an end, either when he passed out, or when the man with the razor blade got bored. With the blast of music and screeching jets that kept him awake day and night in the ‘Dark Prison’ in Kabul, in contrast, Binyam felt his sanity gradually slipping away.

If forced to choose between, on the one hand, losing some physical attribute like my sight and, on the other, losing my mind, which would I choose? Then it made a perverse sense: I would rather have my eyes poked out than be pushed into a permanent world of insanity.

Sleep deprivation is a venerated torture technique that is part-physical, part-psychological. It has a pedigree that stretches back to medieval China, through a prodigious employment by the KGB, to Guantanamo today. The only difference in the modern-day US is the euphemism that is used to obscure the interrogator’s tracks. Now, a detainee who is kept awake for night upon night has been enrolled in the ‘frequent flier programme’. He is regularly dragged from one cell to another, every hour or two, for what seems like eternity, with guards hammering on the metal door every few minutes the whole time. According to the Joint Task Force in Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), this form of torture will make the detainee more compliant:

“In an effort to make him more amenable and willing to talk (Name Redacted) has placed Umar on the ‘frequent flyer program’’for three weeks before Mr Gould’s visit. At three hour intervals he is moved to another cell block, thus denying him uninterrupted sleep and a continued change of neighbours. He will soon be placed in isolation for up to three weeks and then he will be interviewed again.”

A related, rather useless, fact I have picked up courtesy of the US military is that a person who is kept continually awake for 10 days or more will simply die from lack of sleep.

‘Inconvenient’ hunger strikes

Opportunity is, perhaps, the mother of invention when it comes to the modern torturer – as no doubt it was in the past. For example, scores of Guantanamo prisoners have used hunger strikes as their chosen, non-violent form of protest at their mistreatment. This is itself an age-old practice, passing back through Gandhi to the British Suffragettes and beyond. Yet the response of JTF-GTMO has been extraordinarily uncivilised.

In 1975, in the Declaration of Tokyo, the World Medical Association decreed that it was unethical to force feed a competent detainee who was protesting the conditions of his confinement: when IRA prisoner Bobby Sands wanted to starve himself to death, he was permitted to die, and perhaps that was his right. His sacrifice certainly helped to curb the excesses of the British army in Northern Ireland.

One might quibble about the basic morality of forced feeding. What is not subject to debate is whether it is either moral or legal for the captor to conduct the force feeding in a gratuitously painful way. In 2006, the US military lost patience with the hunger strikers, whose complaints were making Guantanamo Bay look bad. Up to that point, the force feeding had been carried out in a manner that would turn out to have been comparatively civilised.

Then, to his eternal shame, General Branz Craddock bragged in The New York Times that he had instituted a new regime that he felt would persuade the detainees that it was not ‘convenient’ to continue with their protest. Rather than leaving the tube in between feeds, it would be pulled out, and all 110cm would be forced into the prisoner’s nostril at the time of the next feed:

“Soldiers would strap a prisoner to one of several specially-designed metal chairs with six-point restraints, insert an oversized tube through the nose and purposely overfeed him, causing him to vomit, defecate and urinate all over himself, and then leave them strapped in the chair for hours like that.”

While this might have been a new way to mistreat a prisoner, torture has long been medicalised by regimes that the US publicly despised, as portrayed by Laurence Olivier’s Nazi war criminal, drilling into the teeth of his victim in the film Marathon Man.

Torturing with compassion?

All these practices echo down throughout the shameful history of torture. Naturally, the torturer rarely plies his trade in the open. Neither does he assume an honest motto. Just as the Germans told Jews and gypsies that work would set them free (Arbeit Macht Frei), so the JTF-GTMO advertises that they are ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’ – seemingly asking us to ignore the fact that their victims have been locked up for 12 years without either liberty or a fair trial. As the visitor drives down to visit a detainee who has been routinely abused for more than a decade, the yellow signs by the side of the road suggest that the ‘Value of the Week’ is ‘Compassion’.

We may like to believe we are all above these terrible acts, but the Milgram experiments of the 1970s tend to belie our smug confidence. While those who appeared to be victims were actually actors in a sociological experiment, the volunteers did not know this, and obediently followed the instructions of the man in the white coat, applying an electric shock for each incorrect answer. Two thirds continued to follow orders to the point (a massive 450 volts) that the victim would have died.

Even when he is just doing as he is told, the torturer must dehumanise the person before him in order to justify it to himself. ‘Muslim terrorists’ have been demonised like any other hate group in history, but the modern torturer goes one step further. In Guantanamo, a prisoner is referred to as a ‘package’ and he is delivered from one ‘reservation’ to the next. The British euphemism is even uglier. When the British helped to overthrow Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, the abandoned offices of his Uber Torturer Moussa Koussa threw up a memo sent five years earlier by Sir Mark Allen, then head of MI6. Its breezy tone masks the horror:

“This was the least we [British] could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I know I did not pay for the air cargo. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.”

The ‘air cargo’ referred to is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a prominent opponent of Gaddafi, and his pregnant wife Fatima Bouchar. Having sought asylum from the man once dubbed the ‘Mad Dog of Tripoli’ by President Ronald Reagan, the couple were snatched by British security forces in February 2004 and rendered to Thailand, where they were handed over to the Americans for abuse and interrogation in a secret CIA prison. Abdul Hakim was viciously beaten, and hung by his wrists from hooks in the cell walls (strappado). Fatima endured abuse so severe that she struggles to describe it even now, and Abdul Hakim was told that she would suffer more if he did not comply with his abusers (second degree torture).

From Bangkok, they were dragged separately onto a plane, shackled and blindfolded, unaware whether their life partner was even still alive. They suffered in contorted stress positions throughout the long flight to Tripoli, with a brief stopover in the British island of Diego Garcia. On arrival, they were delivered to Moussa Koussa. Fatima was mistreated for four more months, and was only released in desperate physical and mental health, on the verge of giving birth. Abdul Hakim remained imprisoned, facing constant violence and the threat of execution for a further six years.

Two weeks after Fatima and Abdul Hakim were rendered to Tripoli, Tony Blair and Gaddafi posed for photos during their famous meeting in the Libyan desert – co-conspirators in a tradition of torture stretching back to the dawn of history.

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, www.reprieve.org.uk