Torture

by Rose Styron | December 8, 1973

… I was arrested on May 11, 1970, in Sao Paulo, on my way to dinner with a young lady I had recently met… She had been arrested several days previously and violently tortured and taken to Operacion Bandeirantes… With four armed policemen we went to OBAN headquarters. During the journey [one] ordered the young lady to show me her hands so that I 'could have an idea of what awaited me.' They… were handcuffed… greatly swollen and covered with dark purple hematomas. I learned that she had been beaten with a type of palmatoria.

 

So begins a long letter to Pope Paul written in 1971 by Marcos Arruda, a young geologist (American mother, Brazilian father), a plea for help from prison. It continues: he and the girl, a painter named Marlene Soccas, were subjected to months of unspeakable torture. On arrival Marcos was kicked, clubbed with truncheons, head pounded on the floor, ears banged in the cupped "telephone" style. Stripped, he was bound tightly wrists-to-ankles with thick rope and hung over a suspended bar upside down, wires from a camp telephone attached to his toe, leg, testicles, through which electroshock traveled with varying intensity for several hours while he was beaten all over with the palmatoria—a plaque full of holes which raises the huge hematomas. When he fainted, water was thrown over him on his "parrot swing" to augment the sensitivity, and the wire was applied to his face for terrible shocks in the eyes, nostrils, mouth, till one policeman remarked, "Look, he's giving off sparks. Put it in his ear now…" Smashing his testicles, burning him with cigarettes, putting a revolver in his mouth, threatening dreadful sexual abuse could not revive him to confess, and the tormentors left him, writhing uncontrollably, for the night. At dawn, his tongue and eyelids were paralyzed, his face distorted with contractions and his leg stiffened like wood, the foot caught downward, toe black. No sole-beating could budge it. Alarmed, they threw him into a van and sped him to a hospital where he was kept incommunicado for five months. He was taken back then to OB headquarters to "confess." A letter from Marlene reports that her captors said, "Get ready to see Frankenstein come in."

I saw a man… walking hesitantly, leaning on sticks, one eyelid half-closed, his mouth twisted, his stomach muscles twitching continuously, unable to form words… "Encourage him to talk; if not the 'gestapo' will kill him"… We did not speak, not because we were heroic, but simply because we had nothing to say.

They tried cajoling him with cigarettes and sweet talk. Next they called in a doctor who prescribed the amount of additional torture he could bear. He was finally tried, abandoned to starve in a cell, and after pressure from abroad was "released." "It is clear that my case is not exceptional," he wrote, "as such events have become commonplace during the last few years in Brazil…."

 

Meanwhile Marlene, her paintings and belongings destroyed, contact with her family forbidden, was abused by the police and subjected repeatedly to "the dragon chair"—tongue, eyes, ears, wrists, breasts, sex organs wired to a metallic-plated seat —during her incommunicado term. She wrote to a judge of the military tribunal from the building (once a slave market for coffee plantations) where she still awaited trial in late 1972 and described scenes of sexual perversions when young newcomers would arrive, "lugubrious amusement for the jailers," and the submerging of skeletal detainees in freezing wells about the yard while the guards took turns holding their heads under:

When I was a young girl, I was taught to love Brazil, respect its flag, to do my best for its people, to dedicate to my country my brains, my work, and if necessary, my life. These sentiments have not changed, the small girl is still inside me, but I know that the illusions died an abrupt death when I was tortured under Brazil's flag and the portrait of the Duke of Caixias…

"Commonplace in Brazil." In one week of April 1973, 700 to 800 Brazilian citizens, mostly students, professors, artists (those of a dangerous mind) were taken to prison. They have been held incommunicado, a term internationally understood to mean tortured before arraignment, and recovery in solitary to remove the worst marks of abuse. We are reminded of Augusto Boal, Brazil's leading playwright and director of the Arena group acclaimed in Paris and New York. He too was kidnapped by the "death squad" on his way home from a rehearsal in Sao Paulo in 1971, and held incommunicado for months. Like the less famous Marcos and Marlene, he suffered the Parrot Perch, but owing to his fame and the popularity of his controversial "newspaper" theaters, his captors told him he would undergo only "torture with dignity." This meant that they would not attach electrodes to his genitals, only to his toes and fingers. When they explained this to him, hung upside down and drenched in salt water for extra shock-power till he thought his body would burst from the swelled blood, and said further that the charges against him were 1) for refusing a prize for his Sao Paulo theater and 2) for slandering his country abroad by claiming that torture was practiced in Brazilian jails, Boal could not resist the impulse to laugh. It was, as he tells us, his last laugh for a long time. The voltage was turned all the way up.

Since 1971 citizens of 32 member nations have complained officially to the United Nations of the systematized use of torture in their prisons, and groups in at least 20 more have flooded the offices of Amnesty International with documented reports. Amnesty International has been working for 12 years to gain release, reduced sentences, better treatment for illegally held nonviolent "prisoners of conscience" and to aid their families. Public protests, private letters, pleas to government officials, money and publicity have begun to pay off. Boal, for example, was acquitted and sent to France the day after AI and P.E.N. publicized petitions signed by Arthur Miller, Joseph Papp and other theater men. The government of Brazil now publicly denounces Amnesty International as "Communist," Russia calls it "imperialist," and Indonesia "New Left." But each day brings new charges that confirm the statement by James Becket, author of Barbarism in Greece: "The practice of torture in the world today has become epidemic. The increase is not in those isolated cases of brutality common to all countries, but in the use of torture as deliberate state policy. Torture has become a means of governing, a means to control dissent and maintain power." Since 1969, when John Corry visited long-term political prisoners on Greek islands and published their individual testimony in Harper's, wehave heard the desperate echoes: a man forced to eat his own shaved-off hair while being clubbed on the head and having his nails torn out; resisters hung, shackled like the prisoners in old Flemish paintings; a student beaten and raped in his dungeon for 40 days by a succession of sadistic military police, his neck collared in live plugs, dragged about by his wired genitals. There is this scene from Pericles Korovessis' document The Method:

We learned about our fellow prisoners in the yard… P. was a young girl of eighteen. She had long black hair and two big black eyes. Her spell in isolation was over, but even so she just sat motionless and silent in a corner. Every now and then her eyes filled with tears and she went into the cell to cry. Then she came out again and sat silently staring into space for hours on end. They had her on the roof for two nights naked. The first night they gave her falanga. The second night they pushed a wooden rod up her anus and another in her vagina and hung her with handcuffs from a hook on the wall, stark naked like that with the rods still in her, all night.

This terror was not new in Greece. Vasily Vassilikos, poet-in-exile, author of Z, in his recent nonfiction Outside the Walls, documents a decade of terror before the colonels. Unsuspecting youths were seized from their villages at night, tortured to death in local police stations or spirited away and imprisoned for years without trial. A Portuguese army officer only last year defended this international habit, saying "the villages are guilty because they are for terrorism as water is for fishes." Thus he justified the "resettling" of dissenters on Mozambique. Torture was prevalent in Algeria before the FLN, in Turkey before the first kidnapping, in Brazil before 1965, and before the guerrilla and the "terrorist" followers of Che and Marighella.

Major newspapers in 1970 carried accounts of the racist "Trial of the Twenty-two" in South Africa, where frightened blacks, pressured by their own attorneys, reluctantly testified on the stand that they had been tortured in jail. Their case was immediately dismissed so that the police could not be cross-examined, but even before they left the building they were re-arrested by their interrogators and put into indefinite solitary. The 22 are still incommunicado. We have been shown who rules the courts.

Stories and photographs have been relayed from India of thousands of young followers protesting the imprisonment, the poisoning, the degradation of Baba, guru of their peaceful sect Ananda Marga. And from Northern Ireland, stories of the brutality of British soldiers, their techniques refined from campaigns in Cyprus and Aden. And from Indonesia, corps of bewildered teenagers accused of communism and detained behind barbed wire on Buru Island since the 1965 coup, when they must have been nine or 10. Asia Magazine reports that 39,000 Moslems, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists are being held without trial in lightless, insect-ridden hellholes in Burma and Ceylon.

In 1970 journalist Don Luce publicized Saigon's "tiger cages"—cages left by the French colonials and now filled to triple, quintuple capacity —rows of thick-walled stone cells 20 inches to four feet high, too low to stand in, barred on top so the pacing guard could spy down and pour quicklime or squirt tear gas on, or vomit down onto the demoralized "enemy" confined for years in sunless starvation, crippled forever if he survived. Our government in 1971, after sending congressmen to confirm Luce's story, after the stupefying reports of intelligence officer Barton Osbome, awarded a $400,000 contract to the American firm, Raymond, Morrison, Knudson, Brown, Roat & Jones, to build hundreds of new cages, smaller ones. William Colby, our recently appointed CIA director, once headed the Phoenix operation, the bureaucratic "bird of death" system that helped make Thieu's prisons the most revolting in the world. Colby's Senate appearances in 1970 and 1973 leave no room for doubt that Americans were present to supervise torture sessions. The shackles used were Smith and Wesson, the tear gas made in Pennsylvania. This view of victims released from Con Son, island of tiger cages, is transcribed by Anthony Lewis:

It is not really proper to call them men anymore. 'Shapes' is a better word—grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs… years of being shackled in tiger cages have forced them into a pretzel-like crouch. They move like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms.

This May a pamphlet from France, The Forgotten Prisoners, compiled by French university professorsand financed by concerned Americans like AlexanderCalder, detailed the story of Thieu's jails today. Two ofthe authors, Andre Menras and Pierre Debris, wereyoung exchange teachers who spent two years in ChiHoa prison for helping raise the NLF flag. Theirtestimony is a shocking masterpiece of desperation.Isolated for a year, they first met their fellow rebels inFebruary 1971, when they came from far Paulo Condor(Con Son). Their knees were broken so that none couldwalk, they were completely blind from years of darkness.They learned of prisoners who were thrown intonests of red ants, or who had hot melted rubberpoured into their navels, or who were put in a sackand plunged into boiling water, or who were whippedraw, soaked in salt, and left in the blazing sun for days.In November 1972, under threat of an impendingcease-fire, Thieu sent Colonel Nguyen Van Ve with a tac squad of police armed with bamboo shields,helmets, pistols, even grenade-launchers into cellswhere 60 to 100 inmates had been herded together forIong periods. Rather than lose his prisoners, Thieuhad them separated, regrouped so that NLF andCatholic students and ordinary criminals were allreclassified as dangerous Communists, the healthymixed with those dying of dysentery and tetanus andTB. He also ordered countless new arrests to "neutralize"citizens. There are at least 200,000 politicalprisoners there now.

 

US Intelligence officer Barton Osborne told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he had never known an individual to live through "interrogation." He described seeing a "detainee" suspected of dissent thrown out of a helicopter, another who died after a six-inch wooden dowel was tapped slowly into his ear canal.

Word comes now from Chile that since the coup, Brazilian police have been permitted to enter the country, to seize and torture Brazilian political exiles there. The use of the "palmatoria" in Brazil is comparable to "falanga" in Greece. "Truth drugs" and the sophisticated misuse of light and sound derange the Irish, Uruguayans, Russians. Electroshock is routine in Iran, Indonesia, South Africa, Spain. Naked burial-to-the-neck for nights, common in Vietnam and Poland, was used in California last year on 16-year-old blacks. Rigid standing in a cold cell, within a circle, flogged to stay awake for days is standard in Czechoslovakia, in South Africa, in Argentina. A Greek litany of the past decade: "Say that I killed my mother, but let me sleep. . . ."

Emmanuel Sztein, Russian-born writer and chess champion teaching at Yale, speaks of the years after 1966 he spent in a Polish prison, because he taught university students about the Russian massacre of Poles at Katyn. His captors practiced every type of abuse; the worst in his opinion was the ancient Chinese water torture, drops striking his head day and night like unpredictable hammer blows, while he was confined upright, immobile. He saw women prisoners stripped to their socks which were filled with sand, a prelude to merciless beating. Sztein's special psychological torture was that he, a Jew who lost 52 members of his family at Auschwitz, found himself sharing a cell for two years with Erich Koch, the Nazi gauleiter of Poland.

It is fear, of course, that breeds distrust, fear of the consequences of lack of control that drives man to confine and abuse his fellow creatures. Simple relentless crowding breeds fear, accelerates the spread of inhumanity and the devaluation of the individual. Eduard Kuznetsov, in his detailed sociological work Diary (L'Express excerpted it last December as "Diary of Camp #10") lamented that his whole life had been spent "like a spoilt herring" in communal apartments, barracks and jails: no privacy, no safety among friends—even his current cellmate an informer. He claims he would gladly trade his 15 years in the Soviet camp for 20 in solitary. Kuznetsov, a nephew of Sakharov, was originally sentenced to death for trying to hijack a plane. He appeals to his countrymen: "Great persons and super-powers make me sick… my only real crime is that I do not want to live in the USSR. Reap your invisible harvests without me; perform your heroic exploits in the far reaches of space without me, without me. . . ."

He echoes the words of Belenkov, the Soviet writer who escaped in 1968: "If a man is persuaded that he has the truth, if he is in a hurry to bring paradise to earth before he leaves it, why should he hesitate to cut off other people's heads? Those heads are blocking his way to paradise, and life is so short…."

Has our natural sense of outrage been blunted by the distance film and print allow? Do we assume that if it is in the theater it is entertainment, like the violence in Straw Dogs or A Clockwork Orange, or in standard gangster or pornographic films where excess dulls, destroys our compassion and can even make violence seem comic? Daily news items of mass horror, reported on TV within minutes of shows that get their ratings by sensationalism, are lost to reality. The audience comes to disbelieve the real crime as unimaginable.

How do those in power justify such inhumanity? Early in 1973 in military-ruled Greece, General Pattakos, criticized for persecuting suspected Communists, replied: "Communists are like beasts. We make no difference between people and people, only between people and beasts." A Soviet official chided for illegally removing political opponents from society philosophized that opposition to their "country" was a kind of schizophrenia, and that those of unsound mind cannot legitimately oppose its rulers. The jailers, the torturers of these separate-by-categorization men, must be made to see their victims as subhuman. It is a two-way street. Greek law professor Georg Mangakis says, "I have seen the torturer's face at close quarters… a Chinese mask… disturbed by twitching… nothing human about it."

Camus wakened men's imaginations and they moved to condemn capital punishment, as William Lloyd Garrison had once roused them to condemn slavery. Is it quixotic to believe that in 1973 a people shocked into moral reaction by Vietnam and by Watergate can, if apprised of the facts, be shocked into a new crusade on legalized torture? Perhaps we cannot stop the secret cruelty even in our own jails (Huey Newton and the "soul-breaker" will recur). Nor have collective documents till now afforded much protection for idealistic dissident minorities: "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," "The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners," the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Nuremburg Charter of 1950—each is impeccably worded, each condemns torture, each is forgotten at will. And ruling governments are touchy when international missions chide them. Chastised by the Council of Europe for its brutality, Greece withdrew from the organization altogether. At an AI press conference in June, Britain's Lord Caradon, confronted by UN critic Shirley Hazzard, agreed ruefully that his colleagues had long been ineffectual in this matter.

Still, in late October at the UN General Assembly's 28th session, a resolution on torture was unanimously adopted. Al's president, Sean McBride, has just returned from Moscow where he took part in the first open discussion of political prisoners there. Amnesty has a new chapter in the USSR. In Greece conservative ex-Premier Cannellopoulos testified in defense of 17 citizens who were provoked by police following a memorial service for liberal ex-Premier Papandreou. The time has come for you judges to impose respect for the human body," he said. "I feel shame as a Greek that such barbarity should be used as an administrative practice. This is what you should condemn, not the defendants." He asked for the punishment of the police themselves. People are speaking out in Franco's Spain: "Catholic Protests Mount Against Special Jails for Priests" runs a headline in The New York Times (Nov. 12). The Times also featured an article (Fred Branfman, Sept. 27) that made a connection between the men who shaped our policies in Vietnam and in Washington: "Official US documents disclose that it is we who created South Vietnam's police system… we who decided that all Vietnamese 15 years old and older would carry identification cards… we who built the prisons and supplied the generators for torture."

Branfman, Vinnie McGee, Tom Hayden and others are heading for Saigon this month to try personally to help the plight of prisoners there. AI's Emergency Action Committee for South Vietnam is concentrating on help to imprisoned students: Tang Quang Tuyen and Tang Thi Nga, sister and brother from the Faculty of Law, are typical of those recently arrested.

On December 10 and 11 in Paris, Amnesty International will conduct the first World Conference for the Abolition of Torture. Representatives of governments from Ireland to Japan and health organization delegates from intergovernmental bodies such as UNESCO, the UN, the Council of Europe, leaders of over 60 nongovernmental organizations on five continents—trade unions, labor unions, lawyers' unions, brain research organizations, student groups, women's groups, religious councils (Zionist and anti-Zionist, Muslim and Christian) Veterans and World Federalists and Police Academy officers—have accepted invitations to participate. In anticipation of Paris, seminars have been held this fall in Australasia, Benelux, Great Britain, Canada, Scandinavia and Germany. Socioeconomic factors of torture in political prisons, medical and psychological implications, legal and moral aspects have been discussed in depth by leading doctors, judges, professors, ministers, writers.

Meanwhile torture is everywhere. Sakharov disputes Yakir's denial of the maltreatment of dissidents in Soviet psychiatric clinics, while Bukovsky lies desperately ill from such ordeals. The outspoken Soviet writer, Moroz, is still in jail, though Amalrik has been released and sent into exile. A diary kept by pediatrician Stephen Pandelakis was smuggled out of Greece this summer. Is he among those who may now be pardoned (448 prisoners were released in August, but in January there were 2777 in two island prisons alone)? Are the six lawyers held incommunicado in Greece for defending dissident students last winter? Amnesty International's four-man mission to Korea has just been jailed.

Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize poet and supporter of Allende who died during the junta's takeover of Chile, ended his last poem with a judgment on the presidents of Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile and the United States:

…whorish bosses
with no other law but torture
and the lashing hunger of the people.

 

Rose Styron is a free-lance writer whose book of poetry, Thieves' Afternoon, was recently published by Viking.

This article originally ran in the December 8, 1973, issue of the magazine.

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