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Stopping Torture Around the World: Building Capacity to Document and Prosecute

Torture destroys people’s bodies and minds, rips apart communities, and undermines democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Despite the absolute prohibition of torture in international law, it continues to be practiced in more than 100 countries, from totalitarian regimes to democracies. Countries frequently justify the use of torture as a necessary means to extract confessions, identify terrorists, and obtain intelligence critical to preventing future violence. Convictions are difficult to achieve because torturers have become adept at inflicting suffering through methods that leave few physical marks.

Although the scale of torture varies among states, a systemic culture of impunity in which perpetrators are rarely punished and justice for victims is elusive is common to all. Perpetrators tend to be powerful state actors including police, military, and security personnel. Leaders fail to condemn these horrific crimes. Judges and police lack the capacity—or the will—to pursue torturers. Victims are isolated and have no trusted, safe place to report torture. And those who pursue justice, accountability, and redress often face the threat of reprisals.

This cycle of impunity cannot be broken until torture crimes are brought to light and perpetrators are prosecuted. Successful prosecutions are hard to achieve when torture victims lack hard evidence to prove their claims of abuse, but specially trained health professionals can identify and interpret the scars left on victims’ bodies and minds. And when health professionals document their findings in medical-legal affidavits, victims and prosecutors have a critical and incontrovertible source of evidence to chip away at the wall of impunity.

One of the most effective tools for ending impunity related to torture is the Istanbul Protocol. This UN document spells out the international standards for how to conduct effective legal and medical investigations into allegations of torture and ill treatment. It also calls on states to implement effective measures to protect people from torture and ill treatment.

PHR Responds to Blanket Redaction of CIA Torture Documents (June 14, 2016)

The CIA released a trove of documents related to its rendition, detention, and interrogation programs, and PHR is appalled that the agency redacted nearly all details concerning the CIA’s Office of Medical Services, the entity ostensibly charged with detainee care.

Federal Judge Allows Lawsuit Against Architects of CIA Torture Program to Proceed (April 22, 2016)

A lawsuit brought by victims of CIA torture against two psychologists who designed and oversaw the illegal program will be allowed to proceed in a U.S. court.

PHR: United States Must Close Guantánamo and End Indefinite Detention (February 23, 2016)

Physicians for Human Rights urged President Obama to ensure all detainees are safely repatriated, resettled in third countries, or prosecuted in federal courts, in response to the administration’s newly announced plan to close Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility.

U.S. Government Releases Photos of Detainee Abuse at U.S. Military Facilities (February 5, 2016)

The U.S. government released 198 photos relating to detainee abuse at U.S. military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, but continued to withhold most of approximately 2,000 photos depicting prisoner ill-treatment that had been requested by the ACLU.

More Global Torture News »

CIA Documents Show How Deeply Doctors and Health Professionals Were Involved in Torture (July 25, 2016)

Last month, the CIA released more than 50 declassified documents about the illegal torture program it operated after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Many of them elaborate on the sheer brutality of the CIA’s practices.

The Human Cost of Guantánamo (January 7, 2016)

This month marks the 14th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo Bay detention center, the most visible symbol of U.S. torture and injustice around the world. President Obama has called the prison a “sad chapter in American history.” Unfortunately, Guantánamo is still open – and so is this sad chapter.

Guantánamo: A Badge of Shame (January 7, 2016)

Fourteen years ago, the U.S. government opened Guantánamo Bay detention facility in an effort to create a place beyond the reach of the law and the Constitution -- a place where the absolute prohibition against torture and ill-treatment could be violated with impunity. Today, the consequences of that pernicious move are being felt in every corner of the United States.

The Shamefully Unfinished Story of the CIA Torture Program (December 9, 2015)

One year ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released part of its massive report documenting the brutality and lawlessness of the CIA torture program. Yet 12 months later, those who designed, ordered, and carried out this deliberate and systematic effort to destroy human beings remain – shamefully – unaccountable for their crimes.

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Truth Matters: Accountability for CIA Psychological Torture (December 2015)

One year after the Senate torture report’s partial release, transparency and accountability – let alone redress to victims – remain stalled. The U.S. government must end the cover-up of torture and ill-treatment and honor its obligation to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

Preliminary Statement on the Hoffman Report (August 2015)

PHR’s statement outlines key findings of the Hoffman report and provides recommendations for accountability, policy reform, and justice.

Letter to APA Leadership on Prohibiting Psychologists' Participation in Interrogations (July 2015)

PHR's executive director sent a letter to leaders of the American Psychological Association supporting recommendations on prohibiting psychologists’ participation in interrogations.

Open Letter to the Government of Bahrain (March 2015)

Physicians for Human Rights, partner organizations, and human rights activists call on the government on Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience in the country in the aftermath of the 2011 popular uprising.

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Our Work

Effective Training Tool: The Istanbul Protocol

The Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol, outlines international legal standards and sets out specific guidelines on how to conduct effective legal and medical investigations into allegations of torture and ill treatment. Read More »

Featured Expert

Vincent Iacopino, MD

Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD

During his 22 years with PHR, Dr. Vincent Iacopino has conducted medical fact-finding investigations and documented a wide range of human rights violations all over the world, including in Afghanistan, Botswana, Burma, Chad, Chechyna, Iraq, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, and Zimbabwe. Read More »