Backgrounders

'Stress and Duress' Techniques Used Worldwide

June 1, 2004

Detainees held by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have been subjected to sleep and sensory deprivation, held in painful stress positions, forced to stand for long periods of time, interrogated while nude, and otherwise mistreated. According to The New York Times, the CIA submerged a detainee in water to simulate drowning. These techniques are clearly designed to inflict a degree of pain and humiliation to soften up prisoners for interrogation, without leaving visible scars. Such techniques are in violation of U.S. legal obligations under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Geneva Conventions. And they are in many cases identical to techniques of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that have been used by repressive regimes around the world, and condemned by the United States.

Related Material

Prison: Torture/Mistreatment
Special Focus

Time to Stop 'Stress and Duress'
Commentary, May 13, 2004

Timeline of Detainee Abuse Allegations and Responses
Special Focus, May 7, 2004

Painful Stress Positions  
 
  • On April 30, 2004, The Washington Times reported that in North Korean prisons, “[s]ome of the most feared forms of torture cited were surprisingly mundane: Guards would force inmates to stand perfectly still for hours at a time, or make them perform exhausting repetitive exercises such as standing up and sitting down until they collapsed from fatigue.”
  •  
     
  • A labor camp survivor in North Korea described the following torture techniques he experienced in the North Hamgyong Provincial Security Agency:  
    The most commonly practiced punishments there included: Pigeon rope tightening (tightly binding a prisoner with his/her arms drawn up behind them by rope in such a manner that the victim is unable to move his/her body); clock torture (standing on one leg with both arms stretched out to mirror the hands of a clock and the other leg swinging like the pendulum of a clock); "motorcycle torture" (forcing a prisoner to imitate for hours on end the physical motions of riding a motorcycle); and endlessly repeating the process of sitting down and standing up. (“I was the Seventh Refugee Forced to Return to North Korea,” Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.)
  •  
     
  • Chinese authorities used a technique called “flying aeroplane,” in which a detainees thumbs are tied diagonally behind his/her back, while interrogating Tibetan and Uighur political prisoners. (“Torture—A Growing Scourge in China—Time for Action,” Amnesty International, February 12, 2001)
  •  
     
  • Burmese authorities have been criticized by the U.S. State Department for forcing detainees to squat or remain in other uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • In Chechnya, in 2002, detainees were forced to stand for hours on end at a detention facility run by Russian military, according to Human Rights Watch.
 
Sleep Deprivation  
  • Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin recalls his experience with sleep deprivation in a Soviet prison in the 1940’s:  
    In the head of the interrogated prisoner a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep, to sleep just a little, not to get up, to lie, to rest, to forget....Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable with it…I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty. He promised them—if they signed—uninterrupted sleep! And they signed....And having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days....The main thing was—to sleep. (Menachem Begin, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia, trans. Kafie Kaplan (Jerusalem: Steimatzky, 1977))
  •  
     
  • In Saudi Arabia in 2001, seven foreign nationals, including Canadian and British citizens, who were accused of planting bombs, were subjected to sleep deprivation while undergoing interrogation, as reported in press stories around the world, which eventually led to false confessions. (Paul Kelso and David Pallister, “Britons tortured by Saudis in bombings inquiry fiasco,” The Guardian, January 30, 2002)
  •  
     
  • In Iran, political prisoners are commonly subjected to sleep deprivation, according to the U.S. State Department and recent Human Rights Watch research. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • In Chile, during Pinochet’s reign in the 1970’s, detainees were often kept sleep deprived. Human Rights Watch (then Americas Watch) reported the allegations of a community leader who was kept awake for 48 hours continually.
  •  
     
  • In Afghanistan, Soviet forces and their allies deprived detainees of sleep for days on end during interrogations (Human Rights Watch).
 
 
“Submarine”—Submersion in Water  
  • During Argentina’s infamous “dirty war,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in 1980 the use of the “submarine” torture technique during interrogations. It was described as: “Immersion by means of the so-called submarine, where the victim’s head is covered with a cloth hood and intermittently forced into a vessel containing water, in order to induce asphyxiation as a means of obtaining information from the prisoner.” (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “Right to Personal Security, Country Report on Argentina,” 1980.)
  •  
     
  • In Chile, under Pinochet, the security forces were also known to be using “the ‘submarine,’ a method that consists in submerging the person in baths full of water—sometimes mixed with excrement—until he cannot breathe,” according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report of 1985. (“Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Chile,” September 9, 1985.)
  •  
     
  • While Uruguay was under military dictatorship, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in 1981 that a detainee in Uruguay was subjected to the “submarine” technique that lead to his death. (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Resolution No 17/81. Case 1954. Uruguay, March 6, 1981.)
  •  
     
  • In the 1980’s, political dissidents in Zimbabwe were subjected to “submarine drowning torture,” according to a 1999 report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe. (Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resources Foundation, “Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace,” April 1999.)
  •  
     
  • In 1999, the U.S. State Department reported that the Zimbabwean military police repeatedly submerged a newspaper editor in water in order to extract information about a possible coup. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • In China, a pro-democracy and labor rights advocate Zhang Lin had his head forced under water until he submitted to the guards, in a “re-education camp” for political dissidents. (“Torture—A Growing Scourge in China—Time for Action,” Amnesty International, February 12, 2001.)
 
 
Sensory Deprivation/Sensory Overload  
  • The foundation for the use of sensory isolation as a method of inducing mental disorientation or artificial psychosis was laid by the KGB in the former Soviet Union. (John Conroy, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People (Place: Knopf, 2000.))
  •  
     
  • In the case of the foreign nationals detained in Saudi Arabia, The Guardian reported in 2001 that a British citizen alleged that he was held for eight weeks in solitary confinement with constant light. (Paul Kelso and David Pallister,“Britons tortured by Saudis in bombings inquiry fiasco,” The Guardian, January 30, 2002)
  •  
     
  • In Iran, the U.S. State Department complained in 1999 that detainees were subjected to prolonged solitary confinement with 24 hour light and complete sensory deprivation. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • In Burma, the U.S. State Department criticized the military government for subjecting detainees to prolonged questioning under bright lights. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • Egypt is regularly reported to use blindfolding to disorient and frighten detainees, according to Human Rights Watch reports and the U.S. State Department. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • The U.S. State Department has criticized Eritrean authorities for exposing detainees to the sun for prolonged periods. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • In Turkey, prisoners have been routinely blindfolded and exposed to extremely hot or cold conditions in prisons. Blindfolding was repeatedly cited in Turkey as a method designed to shield the identity of torturers from their victims. (“Torture and Mistreatment in Pre-Trial Detention by Anti-Terror Police,” Human Rights Watch, March, 1997.) Both the United States and the European Union urged Turkey to ban the practice as part of their efforts to eliminate torture in Turkey.
  •  
     
  • In El Salvador in the 1980’s, security forces used “the capucha,” covering detainees’ heads in black hoods, as reported by Human Rights Watch (then Americas Watch).
  •  
     
  • In Pakistan in 2000, testimony given to Human Rights Watch on the treatment of a political prisoner: “my father was locked up in solitary confinement in a 4x6 torture cell, with no ventilation and a high voltage bulb which was never switched off. Now there is complete darkness in the cell with a zero watt red light bulb kept on to put strain on his nerves. My father cannot make out whether it is day or night because his wrist watch has been taken away from him.”
  •  
     
  • During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, detainees held by Soviet forces and their allies were kept with artificial lights in their cells at all hours, according to testimony given to Human Rights Watch in 1987.
 
 
Nudity/Humiliation  
  • In 1994, Human Rights Watch reported that detainees in Egypt would be forced to stand naked outdoors. The U.S. State Department criticized Egyptian authorities for instances where female prisoners and family members of detainees were forced to strip. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department)
  •  
     
  • In Chile, during the Pinochet regime, female prisoners were regularly forced to undress while being subjected to insults. In 1983, Amnesty International published the allegations of one detainee who was interrogated over a period of 20 days and was repeatedly made to undress during her interrogation. (“Chile: Evidence of Torture,” Amnesty International, 1983.)
  •  
     
  • In Turkish prisons, Human Rights Watch and others have documented detainees being kept naked (blindfolded, sometimes isolated).
  •  
     
  • In Afghanistan, former prisoners of Soviet forces described to Human Rights Watch the psychological punishment and humiliation of being forced to strip in front of many people.
  •