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Lost in torture music

As the old Buzzcocks favourite puts it, “Noise annoys”, and at first glance there’s something almost comical about claims that music was used to torture “war on terror” prisoners.

Loud music can be annoying, but it doesn’t actually torture you, does it? My own parents might have felt they were being “tortured” by me when I was playing my first Buzzcocks 7” single so loudly that the ornaments in my mum’s display case downstairs rattled, but that wasn’t actually torture. It was … well, annoyance. My – not un-tough – parents could soon demand that I “turn that racket off!”, and that would be that.

So hearing about how the theme tune from Barney The Dinosaur – or cat food advert jingles, or (similarly!) Britney Spears songs – were played to Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo prisoners, will not sound like the worst kind of abuse imaginable.

It's just a laugh, right? It's not serious, but just something ridiculous that bored American guards did for fun. Well, no. Because in reality what was happening was a lot more like this:

He initially remained handcuffed and shackled, the cell was kept dark for the first four or five days, and sounds were played over a speaker inside the cell. “It was not really music, but noise to scare you, like from one of those scary movies. You feel your veins pumping and you become nervous. I was very nervous all the time I was in the room. Every time you think you are getting used to it, they would change it. I was scared, there were no dogs but there was noise there. Whenever you try to sleep, they bang on the door loudly and violently. There was music and shouting.”

This is from a report on the three-year-long "war on terror" detention of a Yemeni man called Khaled al-Maqtari. In 2004 he was held by the US at Abu Ghraib – where “There was a CD machine, playing some kind of terrorising music to create a frightening atmosphere, and it was very loud” – then flown in secret to further captivity in Afghanistan and after that taken – again covertly – to a totally hidden “black site” prison where the horror movie music was played.

The context is the key thing. This was a man who was kept alone. He was denied lawyers, seeing only his interrogator-torturers. He was often kept hooded, was repeatedly beaten and was threatened with death/rape/mauling by vicious dogs. In other words he was being deliberately humiliated, terrified and broken down. 

As Ruhal Ahmed, one of the British men held at Guantánamo has said: "It's very scary to think that you might go crazy because of the music, because of the loud noise.” In the end it’s what many of the GITMO prisoners most feared … actually losing their minds.

Lost in music. An altogether more sinister take on the Sister Sledge disco rave-up …


About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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