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The Torture Network : Ever More Sophisticated Worldwide, It Is Leaving a Trail of Shattered Lives in Cities Like Los Angeles

June 21, 1988|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

Torture is a thriving business. Perhaps not a growth industry but certainly not on the wane, according to the organizations that monitor and combat it. Amnesty International reports increasingly scientific methods of torture are practiced in at least 98 countries as unacknowledged government policy--primarily for the purpose of discouraging dissent.

Torture victims are legion, and many survivors, it turns out, are living within the large immigrant populations of Southern California.

"I think there's no doubt there are more torture victims in the Southern California area than anywhere else in the United States or Canada," said Los Angeles psychiatrist Harvey Weintraub. "Places like refugee camps in Pakistan and Thailand probably have more, but I think it's safe to say there are more refugees, and therefore more torture victims, in Los Angeles than in any other city in the Western world."

Weintraub is president of the Walter Briehl Human Rights Foundation, a local group that has recently begun treating victims here through individual referrals and hopes eventually to establish a victims' center similar to the Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims in Copenhagen.

To his aid has come the medical director and founder of the Danish center, which was the first of its kind in the world. Dr. Inge Kemp Genefke, the Danish neurologist who pioneered the treatment of torture victims, was in Los Angeles last week to raise funds for her center while supporting Weintraub's. But what she really brought was a wealth of information about a world of horror.

Genefke, who received the Briehl Foundation's human rights award earlier this year, is a quiet, calm woman. She speaks with a growing sense of intensity and urgency as she describes torture victims, whom she prefers to call survivors ("they are the strong ones,") and their ordeal. Her experience has done little to alter either her horror of torture or her compassion and respect for the victims.

"What is torture?" She rhetorically repeated the question directed to her. "It is to try to destroy a person, to kill you while you remain alive in the body. Today, torture is a science," she said.

Sleep deprivation, mock executions, forced witnessing of others' physical torture or execution, even of the torture of one's own children or family--"It's sophisticated," she said. "They make you exhausted by physical means. They humiliate you. They isolate you so that your best friend becomes an ant and you grieve if it dies. They destroy your identity. Then they can send you out there, humiliated, and you can spread the fear."

Not that physical torture has been abandoned, she added. She repeats a gruesome litany of abuses and the aftermath she has seen--beatings, sexual attacks, electrical shocks, broken bones, severed limbs, blindings, punctured eardrums, lost teeth, scars, suffocation and near drownings--usually in foul liquids containing human wastes.

The physical torture is purposeful, however, and its end is the psychological destruction she repeatedly describes as "by far the worst of the after-effects." Among those after-effects: identity problems, anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, headaches, sexual dysfunction, inability to concentrate, loss of self-esteem and self-respect, survivor guilt, humiliation.

"It's bloody much the same the world over. Fifteen years ago there were differences, but not now. We are behind the torturers. They cannot surprise us. If someone tells me of a new method in one country, in a month or so I start hearing victims from other countries describe the same thing." Later, Weintraub described it as "a weird network of torturers around the world."

Genefke's compassion for the victims is almost matched by her repugnance of the practitioners, and to describe them she seems to fortify herself with a certain amount of sarcasm:"They take young men, usually from rural areas, and subject them to harsh treatment, beatings, humiliations--like making love to a chair while others watch. Then they tell them they are the best soldiers and take them to an area where the first phase of torture is beginning--the beatings. If they can stand that, then they are ready for the next stage. It seems to work. They are well trained, paid well, and, when a prisoner finally breaks down, they get a holiday or a reward. Just like we have our human rights awards, they have theirs. That is the system."

Her special scorn, however, is reserved for doctors and psychologists who abet the torturers. "They can't do it today without their cooperation," she said, referring to the scientific methods, and the necessity to stop short of death. Her organization, and others such as the Briehl Foundation, are "going after the doctor torturers," she said, collecting documentation, issuing professional warnings, seeking to raise the consciousness of medical students and other health personnel regarding the abuses.

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