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February 2007


During the course of their detention, detainees described three principal roles for health personnel whom they encountered. Firstly, there was a direct role in monitoring the ongoing ill-treatment which, in some instances, involved the health personnel directly participating while certain methods were used. Secondly, there was a role in performing a medical check just prior to, and just after, each transfer. Finally, there was the provision of healthcare, to treat both the direct consequences of ill-treatment detailed in previous sections, and to treat any natural ailments that arose during the prolonged periods of detention.

Throughout the course of the initial phase of the detention, the ICRC received allegations that health personnel were directly involved in monitoring the health effects of ill-treatment. In some cases it was alleged that, based on their assessments, health personnel gave instructions to interrogators to continue, to adjust, or to stop particular methods. As with other personnel within the detention facilities, the health personnel did not identify themselves, but the detainees presumed from their presence and function that they were either physicians or psychologists.10

For certain methods, notably suffocation by water, the health personnel were allegedly directly participating in the infliction of the ill-treatment. In one case, it was alleged that health personnel actively monitored a detainee’s oxygen saturation using what, from the description of the detainee of a device placed over the finger, appeared to be a pulse oxymeter. For example, Mr Khaled Shaik Mohamme alleged that on several occasions the suffocation method was stopped on the intervention of a health person who was present in the room each time this procedure was used.

Other detainees who were shackled in a stress standing position for prolonged periods in their cells were monitored by health personnel who in some instances recommended stopping the method of ill-treatment, or recommended its continuation, but with adjustments. For example, Mr Bin Attash (the detainee has had a right-sided below knee amputation) alleged that while being held in a form of stress standing position with his arms shackled above his head, and his feet touching the floor, had his lower leg measured on a daily basis with a tape measure by a person he assumed to be a doctor for signs of swelling; the health person finally ordered that he be allowed to sit on the floor, albeit with his arms still shackled above his head. Mr Hambali alleged that, after a period of the same form of prolonged stress standing, a health person intervened to prevent further use of the method, but told him that “I look after your body only because we need you for information”.

As well as the monitoring of specific methods of ill-treatment, other health personnel were alleged to have directly participated in the interrogation process. One detainee, who did not wish his name to be transmitted to the authorities, alleged that a health person threatened that medical care would be conditional upon cooperation with the interrogators.

The second alleged role of the health personnel was to perform a medical check prior to and after each transfer from one detention location to another. The purpose and results of this medical examination appear not to have been divulged to the detainees.

The third alleged role was to provide medical care to detainees, either for injuries resulting directly from the various forms of ill-treatment employed, or treatment for common ailments that arose throughout the course of the detention. With regard to this third role, when such medical treatment was necessary it appears from the descriptions given that the care was appropriate and satisfactory. In two specific cases, detainees indicated that exceptional lengths were taken to provide very high standards of medical intervention.

Medical ethics are based on a number of principles11 which include the principle of beneficence (a medical practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient—salus aegroti suprema lex), non-malefiance (first do no harm—primum non nocere) and dignity (the patient and the person treating the patient have the right to dignity). These principles guide any relationship between a medical doctor and a person whom he or she is relating to as a medical doctor.

There are accepted roles for health professionals working in recognised, official, places of detention such as police stations and prisons wherein the health professionals have the health care and best interests of the detainee as their primary consideration.12 To this end, when a person enters an official detention facility or system, a medical assessment of their medical status is required in order to meet their current and ongoing health needs. In the case of a normal, lawful interrogation, a physician may be asked to provide a medical opinion, within the usual bounds of medical confidentiality, as to whether existing mental or physical health problems would preclude the individual from being questioned. Secondly, a physician may rightly be requested to provide medical treatment to a person suffering a medical emergency during questioning. This accepted role of the physician, or any other health professional, clearly does not extend to ruling on the permissibility, or not, of any form of physical or psychological ill-treatment. The physician, and any other health professionals, are expressly prohibited from using their scientific knowledge and skills to facilitate such practices in any way. On the contrary, the role of the physician and any other health professional involved in the care of detainees is explicitly to protect them from such ill-treatment and there can be no exceptional circumstances invoked to excuse this obligation.13

With the exceptions detailed in the above paragraph, any interrogation process that requires a health professional to either pronounce on the subject’s fitness to withstand such a procedure, or which requires a health professional to monitor the actual procedure, must have inherent health risks. As such, the interrogation process is contrary to international law and the participation of health personnel in such a process is contrary to international standards of medical ethics. In the case of the alleged participation of health personnel in the detention and interrogation of the fourteen detainees, their primary purpose appears to have been to serve the interrogation process, and not the patient. In so doing the health personnel have condoned, and participated in illtreatment.

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