The Dirty Secret About ‘Clean’ Torture

By Darius Rejali, professor and Chair of political science at Reed College

Maher Arar

Imagine if you were arrested in a foreign country and for nine days the police beat you with a shredded electric cable. Now imagine, three days after the beatings stop, the police take you to meet your country’s embassy counsel. The police threaten you with more torture if you speak of the beatings.

Fearful of their threats, you hope the scars of torture will reveal the injustice. But your counsel sees no marks and you are led back to your cell where the torture continues.

This is what happened to Canadian Maher Arar.  His story should be a warning to anyone who thinks that the evidence of torture is always obvious. As watchdog groups discover the signs of torture, the torturers evolve their techniques. As we go into the twenty first century, torture is changing and concerned citizens need to keep pace.

The story of Maher Arar’s torture

From October 9 through 17, 2002, Syrian interrogators beat Maher Arar with a shredded two-inch diameter electric cable. They beat the palm of his right hand repeatedly. Then the interrogators switched to his left palm. Sometimes they missed his palms and hit him on the wrists instead.  And then they moved on to his hips and lower back.

Arar says that his hands were sore and red for three weeks. “Wherever the cable hit,” Arar said in his Congressional testimony, “the skin turned blue from bruising.” After they finished whipping his hands, they hit him on the stomach, the back of the neck, and repeatedly slapped him hard on the face.

On October 23, Syrian interrogators took Arar to meet the Canadian counsel, Leo Martel. The counsel was no rookie. He had 11 years experience as a foreign service officer in the Middle East, including four as counsel at the Canadian embassy in Cairo. He knew the governments he worked with tortured. Martel did not see any physical signs of torture and added in his reports that Arar appeared healthy, with no visible bruises or injuries.

How could Martel not have seen Arar’s hands, which according to Arar were sore and red for weeks? Arar himself gives the answer: The whipping and beating caused bruising, “but there was no bleeding.” With torture, one looks for scars, and Arar had none.

Clean beating has been a torture practice since the 1920s (See Rejali, Torture and Democracy, Chapters 12 and 16.) It began in democratic states, where police worried about bad publicity. The press wouldn’t believe the accuser without evidence of torture. After democratic states perfected clean torture techniques the police in authoritarian states adopted them to torture special prisoners for show trials. Syrian torturers are not known for their finesse, but with someone like Arar, they knew they needed to be careful.

Of course, it did not help Martel that Syrian officials kept Arar at a distance, or that Arar complied with his torturers, saying even “You can see that I feel well. Anything I ask for I receive.” But couldn’t Martel have seen that Arar was lying?

Actually, human beings are poor judges when trying to assess if someone is lying. Dozens of studies have shown that on average we are correct 57 percent of the time, which is a little better than a coin flip. Most police, who are trained in the art of detection, are not much better in these tests. (Torture and Democracy, Chapter 21, 463-466)

It’s not surprising that Martel concluded Arar was frightened, but not tortured, adding “of course it is difficult to assess.” Martel met Arar six more times and still didn’t figure it out. After each meeting, when Arar returned to his coffin-like cell, he repeatedly beat his head against the wall out of frustration. Finally, on August 14, 2003, Arar decided he had nothing to lose. He spoke in English, telling the counsel what happened to him. But still, without obvious scars, some Canadian officials wrongly discounted his story.

Maher Arar found the courage to speak the truth and shed light on the clean torture techniques used by his interrogators. Many never find this courage, and as Arar’s case proves, torture victims cannot always be found by their scars. Without organizations that speak for victims, and without experts who can attest for the tortured in hearings, and without greater public literacy about modern torture, many more will fall victim to the same injustice.

Darius Rejali, professor and Chair of political science at Reed College, is a nationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation. Torture and Democracy (Princeton, 2007), Rejali’s most recent book, won the 2007 Human Rights Book of the Year Award and the 2009 Raphael Lemkin Award.

This post is part of our 2011 Torture Awareness Month series

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