Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Guantánamo Testimonials Project and The Neurobiology of Psychological Torture


"I have seen and done many horrible things, either at Guantánamo or in Iraq, and I know what it is like to try and move on with your life. It's hard."

-Spc. Brandon Neely


The goal of The Guantánamo Testimonials Project is to collect information about prisoner abuse at the notorious detention camp, which will be closed within a year by President Obama's executive order. The project is housed at the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas (CSHRA) at the University of California, Davis. Recently, former guard Brandon Neely has come forward with his harrowing testimony, which has received extensive press coverage:
Former Gitmo guard recalls abuse, climate of fear

By MIKE MELIA, Associated Press Writer – Sat Feb 14, 11:15 am ET

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Army Pvt. Brandon Neely was scared when he took Guantanamo's first shackled detainees off a bus. Told to expect vicious terrorists, he grabbed a trembling, elderly detainee and ground his face into the cement — the first of a range of humiliations he says he participated in and witnessed as the prison was opening for business.

Neely has now come forward in this final year of the detention center's existence, saying he wants to publicly air his feelings of guilt and shame about how some soldiers behaved as the military scrambled to handle the first alleged al-Qaida and Taliban members arriving at the isolated U.S. Navy base

. . .

Neely's account sheds new light on the early days of Guantanamo, where guards were hastily deployed in January 2002 and were soon confronted by men stumbling out of planes, shackled and wearing blackout goggles. They were held in chain-link cages and moved to more permanent structures three months later.

The soldiers, many of them still in their teens, had no detailed standard operating procedures and were taught hardly anything about the Geneva Conventions, which provide guidelines for humane treatment of prisoners of war, Neely said, though some learned about them on their own initiative.

"Most of us who had everyday contact with the detainees were really young," he said in the AP telephone interview.
In addition to the Testimonial Project, CSHRA has another project on The Neurobiology of Psychological Torture:
... Psychological torture (henceforth PT) is a set of practices that are used worldwide to inflict pain or suffering without resorting to direct physical violence. PT includes the use of sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, forced self-induced pain, solitary confinement, mock execution, severe humiliation, mind-altering drugs and threats of violence—as well as the exploitation of personal or cultural phobias. The psychiatric sequelae of PT are severe. They include delirium, psychosis, regression, self-mutilation, cognitive impairment, and anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Neuroscience research on these and related mental disorders continues to establish their neurobiological underpinnings, thus challenging the popular view that PT is not physical, not serious, and perhaps not even torture at all.

Rendered brain showing abnormal brain activity in torture victims. This picture (white-gray matter border) shows regions in red with excess slow wave activity which is strongest in the left insula (see Kolassa et al. "Imaging the trauma: altered cortical dynamics after repeated traumatic stress") and the left frontal inferior region (see Ray, William and Thomas Elbert "Survivors of organized violence often left with traumatic memories." Psychological Science Volume 17, Issue 10, October 2006). Blue indicates less activity than normal (N = 97 / group). Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Thomas Elbert, Univerity of Konstanz, Germany.

The proceedings from a workshop conducted in 2006 have been published as a book, The Trauma of Psychological Torture. Now that the Bush years are (thankfully) behind us, perhaps more of this important work will be funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which awarded an additional $10.4 billion to the National Institutes of Health.

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