You can trust me, Im a CIA doctor

Comparisons to Nazi doctors conducting experiments on death camp prisoners are definitely overblown, but there’s something horribly sinister about news that the CIA used doctors extensively during “war on terror” torture sessions.

My own experience of doctors is – thankfully – minimal. After all, who wants to spend much time with a doctor if they can avoid it?! In fact after seeing that (underrated) early 90s Brit film with Paul McGann and Amanda Donohoe (Paper Mask) – about a hospital porter who poses as a doctor in a busy Bristol A&E ward (check out McGann’s nicely scary catchphrase: “You can trust me, I’m a doctor”) – I’ve developed a (maybe unhealthy) wariness of doctors.

But hey, that’s just the good old NHS. Imagine, instead, that you’re a prisoner being held in secret by an unaccountable foreign intelligence agency? How much are you likely to be reassured by a medic who suddenly appears in your cell to take your pulse while you’re being waterboarded? Or someone who checks your heart rate after you’ve been subjected to days’ of bombardment with loud noise, to sleep deprivation and to being blasted by an AC unit set to freezing?

You might quite reasonably ask yourself “whose side are the men in white coats actually on?” Down the years, of course, there’s been a long and utterly shameful history of collaboration in acts of torture by a very small minority of doctors, with the “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele at Auschwitz-Birkenau just the most infamous figure. We’re not just talking about flouting the Hippocratic do-no-harm oath, but about actually assisting people in “scientifically” inflicting pain and suffering on their defenceless prisoner/patient.

Meanwhile, concerns about the role of medics at Guantánamo have been swirling around for years. Back in 2006 the Birmingham-based campaigning neurologist Dr David Nicholl led a group of distinguished medical professionals in opposing the involvement of American medics in things like the forced feeding of hunger-striking prisoners at Guantánamo. They pointed out that the US military was quite brazen about this, even awarding medals to GITMO doctors “for medical treatment that would warrant a criminal investigation if carried out in Britain”.

Where do we go next? In the final scene of Paper Mask Matthew, the murderous McGann character, is still stalking the wards. With the “war on terror” we need to see medical health professionals held responsible for their part in the torture and interrogation of people in secret detention around the world. I wish President Obama well with his healthcare reforms but also urge him to see that proper medical ethics are restored to the US military and intelligence services. The easiest way, as we’ve said repeatedly at Amnesty, is to allow a full commission of inquiry into “war on terror” abuses.

(PS: if you’re in the London area today please come to this “Renditions Monologues” theatre production at the Amnesty office in east London tonight (it’s free!). It’s a drama based on the secret CIA-led “renditions” programme. Doubtless the theatre company will this very moment be writing a new “Doctor of Torture” character into the play …).

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