CHICAGO (Reuters) - Researchers who studied prisoners in the former Yugoslavia reported on Monday that psychological torment and humiliation can inflict as much terror and trauma as physical torture.
The study’s authors, who are psychologists at King’s College, University of London, and Clinical Hospital Zvezdara in Belgrade, said the findings pointed to a need for a broad definition of torture.
Interrogation techniques have stirred controversy in the United States after evidence emerged of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after revelations the CIA ran secret prisons outside the United States for terrorism suspects.
Based on the responses of 279 former prisoners who included Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, the study said it was hard to distinguish between the psychological damage exerted by mental versus physical forms of torture.
As distressing as physical torture were such techniques as sham executions, threats of rape, sexual advances, humiliating treatment, sleep deprivation and witnessing the torture of others, they said.
The unpredictability and loss of control created by mental torture can produce similar levels of anxiety, fear and helplessness as physical torture and leave comparable long-term psychological scars.
United Nations conventions that bar torture refer to it as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” study author Metin Basoglu of King’s College wrote.
Of the study participants, 241 were men and 192 had been in detention camps, with the torture experiences occurring roughly eight years earlier.
All had experienced at least one form of physical torture — such as beatings — in addition to mental torture, which made it difficult to disentangle the effects of each.
But based on the detainees’ scoring of how stressful each method of torture was, and the incidence of mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from it, the authors concluded there was no substantial difference between mental and physical torture.