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“In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it.”

                                                                                                     -Nathaniel Hawthorne

The term “Torture” predominantly invokes an image of a living being spouting blood from wounds, regularly lashed and pierced by the torturer to make the victim’s pain extremely unbearable. Thus, subjugating that individual to the level of a degraded mortal. This pain inducing technique has evolved from time to time and majorly complemented with the development and use of scientifically innovated tools. These tools serve as a means to aggravate victim's pain and draw confessions out. The consistent act of inflicting pain to retrieve some coveted information or to serve it as a way of punishing the offenders is something that is not exterior to our base of knowledge.

It is essential to develop a further understanding of the subject of torture for examining actual causative factors behind the continued practice of torture. Tracing its origins, how it came to latch itself with the judicial process and ways that served as political means rather than their purported end. Despite the preventive measures adopted at the international level through Convention Against Torture, 1984, this practice, even today, finds its way into police custody, army camps, prisons and frequently employed by militant outfits as well. This harmful method intended an attempt to paralyse body and soul of the victim is neither novel nor recent it was practised during middle ages to discourage people from acting against the state, those who were alleged of performing witchcraft, or other ways of defying state formulated principles and law.

Tracing the genesis of Torture 

In Ancient Greek law, torture was prohibited against citizens but permitted against slaves and others as a means of obtaining information. Slaves at the bottom of the status hierarchy were regarded as nothing more than a property, who could be used, abused by the master as long as it pleased him. The testimony of a slave was not considered reliable unless he was tortured. Since slaves were loyal to their masters, they were tortured in trials, given that these slaves had very few judicial rights back then. Also, the control or power exerted by a master over his slave would not allow the slave to testify against his master.

The Roman law extended this sanctioning of torture to include citizens and after that influenced the laws of many European countries built on Roman law. Many Christians were persecuted under Roman rule. In 64 A. D. , Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a fire that broke out in Rome, and many were brutally tortured for causing it. Under Emperor Domitian, Christianity was illegal and executed those who confessed of practising it. With the collapse of the Roman empire, Christians abolished this practice, but, soon it resurfaced around the 13th century.  The revival of torture occurred due to the introduction of 'Inquisition'; a term referred to a powerful office under the Catholic church. It punished heresy and was known for its severity of torture and persecution of Jews and Muslims. Now, torture was being applied as a means of extracting confessions. The European countries like France who were influenced by Roman law were beginning to treat torture as a natural part of questioning and a method of securing information. But the use of torture declined after it was abolished in England by a law enacted in 1640, regardless of which suspected witches were subjected to various forms of torture.

The curiosity of scientific minds led to several experiments carried out initially not only on humans but animals also. Living animals kept in a bell jar with candles to see which one would expire first. Vipers, frogs,  fish, insects were subjected to removal of air and increased air pressure. Animals injected with liquid infusion making them purge, vomit, intoxicate, killed further revealed the extent of violence that ensued in the name of scientific developments. What assumes a greater significance here is how these tools were innovated, re-innovated to meet the desired ends and its continuance in the contemporary period.

Evolution and weapons of torture 

Any simple tool drawn with malafide intentions can become a weapon of torture. Though there are specific popular torture methods specifically designed to induce torture at various levels. Torturing victims using electric shock, other violent techniques involving the suspension of the victim by an arm or by a leg, immersion of victim’s head under water until the point of suffocation, the burning of the victim’s skin with cigarettes or red-hot iron rods, beating aimed at specific parts of the body are some common contemporary ways of inflicting pain and suffering on the target body. Deplorable sanitary conditions in detention, keeping the victim alive with filthy food and drinking water. Acts of psychological torture often accompany these evident types of physical torture. At times, the objective is to destroy fundamental parts of the victim’s identity involving self-respect and self-esteem.

 “My back was broken and refrozen during these torture sessions. My knees were further damaged. My body was wrenched apart. There was nothing particularly imaginative about the North Vietnamese techniques. They hadn’t improved much on the devices of the Spanish Inquisition. They bent things that didn’t bend; they separated things meant to stay together.”

                                -Leo K. Thorsness(1932-2017), former US Air Force colonel, Vietnam POW

Torture is used stealthily to serve the political interest of those in power, but it may not be correct to assert that torture is not occasionally used for judicial ends. Historically, torture was given out to offenders as a punishment to serve judicial purposes. While the medieval way of torture ranged from pinning thumb screw, iron maiden which further caused dehumanisation and individual demoralisation. Nazis made Jews herded together in concentration camps and later subjected them to suffocate in gas chambers. In Rwanda, cells devoid of light was used to imprison prisoners in deplorable conditions for a year. In the former Soviet Union, opponents of the state were put in psychiatric hospitals and given pain-inducing drugs.

According to Jonathan Power, torture has evolved side by side with civilisation. The torture methods used in the last century has altered in ways of technicality, have become more clinical. Victor Hugo, well-known writer remarked in 1874, “torture has ceased to exist.” On the contrary even though judicial sanctioning of torture in Europe was abolished but it was still alive in many parts. During the 20th century, the use of torture as a political practice became widespread. (Human Rights A brief introduction, pp. 169). Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy became the first to instigate torture as a state policy. Followed by Hitler’s rule in Germany, committing atrocities on Jews. Postcolonial dictatorships used torture as a tool to silence opponents.

Many international documents including Convention against torture, 1986 and Geneva Convention, 1929 to protect the rights of prisoners of war have been adopted followed by few countries to act on such issues. However, Amnesty International reports suggest almost half the countries of the world practice torture in some of the other form. Torture has reappeared in modern civilisation in the form of giving out inhuman, brutal treatment to political prisoners and suspected terrorists.

With many torture techniques undergoing further sophistication, recent documented developments indicate to increase use of rape as a weapon of torture. Fear of social stigma, retribution lead to many under-reported cases of rape in custody under state jurisdiction by the centre or by private individuals in the domestic sphere. (O’Byrne, 2005,p.177). Rape in wars is again not a new phenomenon, but, the use of rape as a weapon of torture has become increasingly common in the 20th century. Testimonies of Balkan conflict suggested that the Serbian soldiers had raped around 20,000 women and girls in 1993. A European community report has suggested that such rapes are committed to inflicting maximum humiliation on victims and families.

Perspectives on objective behind the torture 

It has been argued over and over again how the means involved in subjecting people to inhuman and degrading treatment is condemnable. But, to have a true understanding, it is essential to shift the undue emphasis given to moralistic perspective and consider causalistic approach as well. Committing torture is not just morally wrong but also serves as the illegal means to achieve its purported end. A point emphasised by Italian criminologist, Cesare Beccaria. Torture is employed as a tool of power. This reflects that it is less to do with pain, but, more with domination. Here, the subject is not directly served cruelly for the sole purpose of extracting information but to destroy that individual by lowering that person to the status of an object.

The perpetrator attempts to gain control over the victim and cause more humiliation to have those ends meet. Broadly, in the political context, it is to impose a particular ideology or belief on others leaving no space for dissent.

Michel Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punish-The birth of prison' argues that the development of the western system of prisons, police and legal hierarchies have shifted the focus of social control from our bodies to our souls. The objective of controlling people by ways of designing cruel punishments was not to rehabilitate, but, more retributive. Foucault further examined public torture and execution techniques and reflected in his work that making those punishments carried out in public, during 16th,17th century Europe was to mark it as a spectacle. Wherein people could be disciplined and feared by the authority. An assertion of power by the ruler or sovereign had one intended and unacknowledged objective that was to intimidate people from its glory and power.

A British born American author, editor Andrew Sullivan quotes,

“the one thing we know about torture is that it was never designed in the first place to get at the actual truth of anything; it was designed in the darkest days of human history to produce false confessions in order to annihilate political and religious dissidents. And that is how it always works: it gets confessions regardless of their accuracy.”

It is the idea conceived concerning torture that is based on silencing, torture serving as a form of censorship. A shift in understanding the concept of torture from a moralistic viewpoint to causalistic has instilled new notions on the causes of torture in past and present. Earlier mainly viewed within the framework of deterrence now presents the real purpose which is political. The reason why crimes of torture like ethnic cleansing, genocides and other channels of perpetrating torture bring in the political motives that were responsible for what happened in cases of Rwanda(1994) and Bosnia genocide(1995). A resultant reaction was drawing up of International Convention Against Torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in 1984 to clarify UN’s position on torture. But, despite several attempts of established international standards and safeguarding rights, torture is a more common practice in the world today. Lately, Myanmar has appeared as another such place of mass torture and killings of people belonging to the Rohingya community. Such episodes reflect a need to re-examine continued practice of torture, by exploring ulterior motives that have often remained overlooked past immediate effect which is mostly viewed regarding pain and punishment.


 PICTURE CREDIT: Cassandra voices

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