Monday, 27 April 2009

Waterboarding and Torture

The recent release of CIA Interrogation Memos has caused great consternation among many both in the US and around the world. The memo described the interrogation techniques used against suspected terrorists, authorised by the previous Bush administration.

The most controversial technique is waterboarding. Here, the prisoner's body is strapped on a board, legs fully stretched and hands tied behind his back around the board. The board is slanted to one side to position the prisoner’s head lower than his feet. The prisoner’s face is covered with a wet cloth and cold water will be poured over and over the prisoner’s face. With the cloth covering the face, the prisoner is not in danger of drowning but the prisoner will feel as if he is drowning and going to die. What the interrogators hope to achieve is that the prisoner will eventually succumb, beg for the procedure to stop and agree to cooperate with his captors.

US attorneys declared in 2002 that waterboarding causes "no pain or actual harm whatsoever". Therefore, it cannot be considered torture because it does not result into any "severe pain and suffering". Other US government officials claimed the technique will not cause any negative psychological effects and it is essentially the same technique used in US military trainings.

No matter how some people may want to twist it, waterboarding is indeed a method of torture. It is in fact something that has been practiced for at least a few hundred years, most notably during the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, World War II and the Vietnam War.

People have justified the use of such technique by citing the need to extract vital information from captured prisoners (click here to access an interesting presentation on the morality of waterboarding). I sympathise with such views and will not totally dismiss it despite my overall objection to the use of torture.

Some people here in Malaysia may think that this happens elsewhere only, not in this country. Well, you might just want to do some research on prisoners and detainees here to catch a glimpse of what has been going on in this 'peaceful' country of ours. One important reference is Dr. Syed Husin Ali's book Two Faces. Currently the Deputy President of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Malaysia's main opposition political party), Dr. Syed Husin Ali who was then professor of anthropology at the University of Malaya, and member of the now defunct Malaysia's People Socialist Party (Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia) was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for six years from 1974 to 1980.

In his book, Dr. Syed Husin described how he was slapped, punched and kicked repeatedly, and made to stand shirt-less while cold air from the air-condition was blasting straight towards him. Apparently, one of the things his interrogators wanted him to 'confess' was that Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia) was a communist agent! The good professor of course did not comply and had to endure detention under the ISA for his lack of cooperation.

During my brief stint working at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) here in Kuala Lumpur, I heard worse accounts of tortures endured by illegal immigrants. I have no way to verify them of course but these stories, if indeed true, are real proof of Professor Philip Zimbardo's chilling theory on how easily ordinary human beings can be so evil and cruel to others.

All-in-all, let's hold on to one of the foundational values in all religions of the world: 'do onto others what you want others to do onto you'.

Related Article: Torture in detention: Guantanamo to Malaysia by Josh Hong

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