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World: Combating Torture Faces An Uphill Battle

  • Lisa McAdams

Prague/Copenhagen, 8 January 1998 (RFE/RL) --Bent Sorensen is hailed as one of the world's leading experts on torture, a practice he calls the greatest existing threat to democracy. But what is torture? Who uses it and against whom, and why? Sorensen answered these and other questions in an exclusive interview this week with RFE/RL.

Sorensen says torture causes severe pain or suffering, physically or mentally. Harsh treatment considered as torture is done intentionally and for a purpose, in his view-- or to get a confession or to intimidate the person. Finally, he says, torture is done by a public official. That is to say, according to Sorensen, that torture is something to do with governments and is, he says, quite "astonishing" if you count the number of (U.N. member) governments that still allow torture in some way or another.

Sorensen puts the number of countries where government-sanctioned torture prevails at well over 70, or roughly one-third of the world's countries. And he adds that over half of the world's population lives in areas where there is a risk of being tortured. He also says the practice of torture is far more systematically structured than was previously thought to be the case. He attributes that trend to a phenomenon he calls "torturers teaching torturers." Pressed by RFE/RL correspondent to choose one hallmark of torture in Central and Eastern Europe, Sorensen said efforts centered on the psyche. Sorensen said that Russia, for example, used widespread psychological torture, with people being placed in mental institutions against their will or given injections. Many, Sorensen said, ended up insane in some way, or nearly insane. This, he says, was the specific "communist" way of torturing people.

Sorensen, a medical doctor for more than 50 years, said people who have been severely tortured are among the most physically damaged and psychologically broken. That is partly why he has chosen to spend his latter years helping precisely these people.

Over 70, Sorensen is the only person to serve as a member of both the ten-person United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) and the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). From 1984 to 1990, he also served as the President of RCT, the Rehabilitation and Research Center for torture victims in Copenhagen, the world's oldest torture rehabilitation center.

Denmark was the first country to provide torture victims with assistance and rehabilitation. Today, Copenhagen is regarded as the mainstay for the prevention of and fight against torture. Sorensen told RFE/RL correspondent that there are currently 99 torture rehabilitation centers in 49 countries, including Russia, Romania, Armenia, Ukraine, Albania and all three Baltic Republics. Sorensen says that this shows Central and Eastern Europe is well represented.

Sorensen says that the UN and the Council of Europe are working with the Organization For Security And Cooperation In Europe (OSCE) to see that rehabilitation centers or, at the very least, anti-torture programs are established in each and every country of the region. Sorensen said the need for such program is "great." Sorensen's agenda as a member of the Council of Europe Committee (CPT) includes 125 days of traveling each year. He frequently visits police stations and prisons to investigate whether torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is taking place. Here's how he described a recent visit to Bulgaria. Sorensen said the commission found very severe conditions in Bulgarian prisons. As he put it," They simply don't have enough heat or food. They do not have enough regime and everything was very miserable." He said that the commission knew that economic conditions in Bulgaria were very bad. But he said they told the Bulgarian authorities that if they were going to put people in prison as much and often as they did, they would have to take responsibility for the prisoners.

Sorensen told RFE/RL correspondent there were similar problems with prisons visited in Russia and Ukraine. And he said the problems did not just plague the prison system, but often began with police stations. Again, he describes what he found on investigation in Bulgaria.

Police stations are designed to keep people a day or two, but there they keep people for months in cells without light, in total darkness and in overcrowded conditions. Sorensen said prisoners sleep in turns, lying two in the bed and one under the bed and one on the floor. He said others stand to wait to sleep. Conditions, he said, were simply terrible, as was the smell, which he described as worse that of animals.

Sorensen said perhaps the most painful and personally difficult aspect of such circumstances, and those surrounding more conventional methods of torture, is that they are man-made. He said the victims' realization that this treatment is being waged against them by another human being is what makes the whole circumstance so incredibly horrible for most; a circumstance many can neither forgive nor forget.

"Torture is degrading," Sorensen said, "and not only to the torture victim, but also to the torturer and to society as a whole." At the same time, Sorensen expressed "optimism" that the practice could be prevented. He said one of the best tools to do so is in educating the public that as long as there is torture, there will never be democracy.

Asked what else a government or individual could do during the uphill and often anonymous battle against torture, Sorensen said it all begins with will. He drew on the words of Danish poet Piet Hien to illustrate. Hien wrote "It's amazing what you can't do when you truly don't try."