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Putin Must Also Face The Gulag Question

Even while embroiled in the biggest foreign policy standoff of his reign, the Russian leader has been forced to acknowledge accusations of torture after leaked videos of violent abuse in prisons. Yet proposed new legislation to stem torture risks challenging a regime built on corruption and state-sponsored repression.


MOSCOW — The head of a bruised and battered prisoner hangs on his bare chest. A guard clad in camo-green lifts his knee into the half-living, half-dead face, as blood mixed with saliva and mucus drips onto the concrete floor. The prisoner’s hands are then chained, his bare legs thrust high into the air, and his horrifying screams announce the entrance of the long red pole that shall be used in unspeakable ways.

Such torture scenes must be from Russia’s Tsarist past. Or perhaps, the description comes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 landmark book, The Gulag Archipelago, that first revealed details of the evil of Soviet forced labor camps?

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Witness From The Inside: Finding The Source Of India's Police Violence

The Indian police force is built on a macho culture that promotes those who commit violence. Only the victims know the truth, and no one ever dares challenge the system.

Most Indians are familiar with heavy-handed police behavior in the form of the cops slapping people or, if they are pretending to manage law and order, beating them mercilessly with their sticks (lathis). However, the real face of police brutality often remains hidden, their notions about police torture derived largely from what they have seen in films. Only the victims know the truth.

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After Arab Spring, Tunisian Police Brutality Is Back

TUNIS — Six years ago, the Tunisian Revolution sparked the Arab Spring uprisings and overthrew the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his notoriously violent police state. Now a nascent democracy, Tunisia is once again faced with the issue of police brutality. Tunis-based daily Le Temps reports that several local and international NGOs have recently criticized police tactics, which authorities say is necessary to contain terrorist activity in the North African country.

At a recent conference organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), activists argued that Tunisian police have carried out mass arbitrary arrests and used physical violence and torture in interrogations. New laws outlawing torture and providing defendants with lawyers have routinely gone ignored, and detainees are subject to long periods of detention without trial.

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Worse Than Prison, The Life Of Syria’s Female Ex-Inmates

Women held in Syria’s government prisons report psychological abuse, sexual assault and torture. But for many, the suffering they experience after their release is even worse.

When Luna Watfa refused to reveal any information to her interrogators, they took her son, 17, and threatened to torture him. "They put my son's hands behind his back, his T-shirt over his head and they took him," she says.

Watfa, now 35, was a law student when the popular uprising broke out in Syria in March 2011. But when she witnessed President Bashar al-Assad's forces shooting at and beating protesters, she decided to devote herself to documenting what she saw. In January 2014, she was arrested on a Damascus street by a gang of men whom she quickly recognized as government officers. "There were three cars with 12 guards. They came only for me," she says over Skype from her new home in Koblenz, Germany.

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Cameron Tax Info, CIA On Waterboarding, Calling Shotgun


British Prime Minister David Cameron released information from his 2009-2015 tax returns yesterday in an attempt to defuse controversy about how he profited from his late father's offshore fund, The Independent reports. The details about the family's investment company were leaked last week in the so-called Panama Papers.

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Robert Christy*

Trump And Torture, Reflections Of A Good Soldier

The terrorists attacks in Brussels last week provided instant fodder for the U.S. presidential campaign. Republican front-runner Donald Trump had already boasted last month that he would order the U.S. military to "target the families of terrorists," also pledging to reinstitute waterboarding and "a whole lot more" as a tactic to extract information from terrorists.

With 35 innocent people dead in the Belgian capital, Trump wasted no time in doubling down on his support for torture, declaring in an interview that he would have used waterboarding to extract information from Salah Abdeslam, the suspect in November's Paris terror attacks who'd been arrested just four days before the Brussels attack.

"Frankly, waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we change the laws or have the laws, waterboarding would be fine," Trump said. "We work within laws. They don't work within laws. They have no laws. The waterboarding would be fine and if they could expand the laws I would do a lot more than waterboarding."

Perhaps the most notable response to Trump's virulent pledges have come from Michael Hayden, the retired Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "If he Trump were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act," Hayden said during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. "You're required not to follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict."

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Gen. Michael Hayden when he ran the CIA

There's only one problem with that statement: Soldiers almost always follow orders.

I know because I was a soldier once, a good soldier. I did as I was told.

When I enlisted at the age of 17, I was a high school dropout with few prospects other than the military. In 2005, at the height of the Iraq War, the Army was more than willing to give me a job fighting overseas. I knew nothing about international law or human rights.

The moment you enlist, you swear an oath to "obey the officers appointed over you." During basic training, the obligation to follow orders is physically and mentally drilled into you. No military tolerates dissent among its ranks. That's how armies have functioned for thousands of years. It's how they must function. Without discipline, an army becomes a rabble, easily defeated by a well-organized enemy.

When I failed to follow orders, it inevitably led to physical suffering or public humiliation.

An example of a minor infraction was when I neglected to get a haircut. My platoon had been in the field all week training, and I was frankly exhausted. But my platoon leader said, "I won't have any fucking Elvises in my platoon. Get it trimmed."

With every intention to get a haircut, I headed back to my barracks. Once I arrived, my roommate offered me a cold beer, and I happily accepted. One led to another, and then another. Before I knew it, the barbershop had closed for the day. I could've had a fellow soldier cut my hair in the barracks, but I decided to forgo it and enjoy the rest of my night. I could always get a haircut the next day.

Next morning's formation proved otherwise. I was dealt a quick and severe punishment by a dog-faced sergeant via "corrective training," which is a euphemism for punishment.

Throughout the day I was forced to perform various physical exercises meant to degrade me, such as crawling on all fours everywhere I went. To add insult to injury, the sergeant also shaved my head with a razor. Exhausted, humiliated and bald, I swore never to disobey another order.

I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I arrested countless military-age males with no little or no cause. I happily turned over those prisoners to Iraqi and Afghan Army or police units, whom I knew routinely tortured and even executed their prisoners.

It wouldn't be a surprise if some of the "high-value targets" I assisted in capturing are now in Guantanamo, where they perpetually languish, without charge. I abused my authority, ransacking homes as I "searched" for contraband in Iraqi and Afghan houses.

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Scandal of U.S. military torture in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison — Source: Wikimedia Commons

My fellow soldiers and I are not sociopaths, and you wouldn't even consider us bad guys if you met us. We were just following orders. We're programmed from the first day of basic training that if a superior instructs you to jump, your only response will be, "how high?"

So, when that same platoon leader who told me to get a haircut told me to "tear this fucking house apart!" I did. I was a good soldier, they said.

Follow orders — get rewarded. Disobey — be punished. Worse than punishment, you'll be seen as weak. Speak out, and they'll call you snitch.

A more severe infraction, such as abandoning your guard post in Iraq, could warrant death by a military court martial. §890 of Article 6 (link) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states: "Any person subject to this chapter who — (2) willfully disobeys a lawful command of his superior commissioned officer; shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct…"

The operative word in the section is "lawful." As long as what your superiors tell you to do is lawful, you are legally bound to follow orders. Your life may even depend on it.

Therefore, General Hayden is correct: Service members are not required to obey "unlawful" orders. The problem is they almost always do.

I'm thankful I was never ordered to torture a prisoner, because I would have done as I was told. If the military followed the illegal orders of one bad president, we would follow the orders of another. That's what good soldiers do.

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Dalia Rabie

Is Europe Fed Up With Abuses Of Sisi Regime In Egypt?

The torture killing of an Italian student in Cairo has prompted the European Parliament to cut military lead to Egypt. But the European leaders may not be able to make the break.

CAIRO Last Thursday, 558 members of the European Parliament voted in favor of a non-binding resolution recommending the suspension of military aid and assistance to Egypt. The move comes in the wake of of the "abduction, savage torture and killing" of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni in Cairo.

The European Parliament emphasized Regeni's murder "is not an isolated accident," but took place in the context of an increase in unlawful practices in Egypt — reports of torture, forced disappearance and the deaths of detainees in police custody.

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Isabel Esterman

Shame And Cynicism, When An Italian Is Killed In Cairo

CAIRO — I did not know Giulio Regeni, but I could have. The earnest, affable face staring out of his photographs is reminiscent of any number of the trickle of European researchers and activists who pass through Cairo and want to meet in downtown dive bars to talk about the condition of the workers and the economy. There is the scantest degree of separation between his life in Cairo and mine, a thread of mutual acquaintances.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that his death has shaken me deeply.

To live in this city, in these times, requires the ability to metabolize a steady diet of poison. Like the immune system grows accustomed to drinking tainted water, the mind adapts to and normalizes ever-greater levels of horror — violence, torture, mass killings. It is astonishing what people can get used to.

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Juliana Gragnani and Matheus Magenta

Instagram Savagery, Courtesy Of Violent Brazilian Police

In Brazil, law enforcement officers boast on social network sites about committing violence against suspects, and show off the results for all to see.

SÃO PAULO — The personal social network profiles of some Brazilian police officers show a grim reality: too many of them subscribe to the philosophy that "a good criminal is a dead one."

Some feature photos of detained boys with whipped backs, while others show young offenders severely beaten at the hands of cops. Two videos even show police officers torturing young adults who have clown tattoos — a symbol known to be associated with the murder of police officers. One of them is being forced to scratch his tattoo off with sandpaper and alcohol if he doesn't want to be shot in the foot. The other video shows a youth having his tattoo scratched off of his back with a knife.

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Jasvinder Sehgal

Devanish's Story: How An Inter-Caste Elopement Led To Murder

NEW DELHI — Five months ago, Devanish Meena, a young Indian man from New Delhi, eloped with his longtime girlfriend. Now he is a widower. Adding to Devanish's anquish is his belief that the young bride, Pratibha Gujar, was murdered — by her own family.

In India, approximtely 1,000 young people are murdered each year in name of saving a family's honor. The "honor killings," as they're known, are often committed when a forced or arranged marriage is rejected.

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Youmna al-Dimashqi

Jailed By Assad Regime, One Woman Recounts Torture

"We were exposed to hunger, electrocution, beating and insults. We got sick, we got lice and scabies, and were often strip searched, which was the worst part."

DAMASCUS — Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of women.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which describes itself as an independent and neutral human rights organization, estimated in 2014 that the government was holding some 215,000 people, including 9,500 children and 4,500 women. The organization alleges that a significant number of those have been tortured.

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Markus C. Schulte von Drach

Is This German Scouting Ritual Child Abuse?

Though the country's major scouting associations say the practice of "Pflocken," in which children are tied down, isn't acceptable, the timeworn practice continues.

MUNICH — It's spring 2014 at a boy scout camp in southern Germany. Younger boys and adolescents are cavorting about, practicing, learning and generally having fun. Then word spreads that a boy named Mark is about to be targeted for "Pflocken," so the boys gather to watch what's about to happen. Mark, who's about 11, has done something wrong, "something bad," and he's going to be punished.

Group leaders set him down on a table and bind his arms and legs, which are spread out. Gummy snake candy is then stuffed into his mouth. "Almost everybody thought it was funny," say some of the kids who were there. But some boys didn't find it funny at all. They may have worried they would face similar treatment one day.

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Naeem Sahoutara and Shadi Khan Saif

In Pakistan, Islamic Boarding Schools Accused Of Torture

KARACHI — It’s time for the evening prayer at the Edhi Shelter Home in Karachi, Pakistan. For nine-year-old Rehmatullah Khan, it’s a reminder of a painful childhood past.

His parents sent him to an Islamic boarding school in the northwestern city of Quetta when he was just three. "At seminary, my teacher would beat me and the other students," he recalls. "The teacher would beat us for not memorizing the lessons or making a noise. He sometimes hit us with sticks and would punch me when the other students told him it was me making noise in the classroom."

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Annick Cojean

Syria's Silent War Crime: Systematic Mass Rape

Evidence is piling up that the Damascus regime has used rape - of daughters in front of fathers, wives in front of husbands - as a targeted weapon.

AMMAN — It is the most dreadfully silent crime currently perpetrated in Syria. A mass crime, carried out by the regime in the most barbaric ways that relies on the most deep-rooted taboos of traditional Syrian society — and on the silence of the victims, convinced they will be rejected by their own family, or even sentenced to death.

United Nations investigators and numerous NGOs say because of the silence they have failed to adequately document the widespread accounts of systematic rape since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria.

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Alfred Hackensberger

Survivors Of Syria's Torture Chambers Describe Horror

One tortured by the regime, another by Islamist rebels, both offer evidence of the worst kind of brutality that reigns in Syria today.

GAZIANTEP — Mohammed Jabri spent 67 days in the infamous prison run by Syria’s political secret service in the Mezzeh section of Damascus. “The victims in the photographs went to heaven as martyrs," the 25-year-old says. "But there are thousands more in such living hells."

Jabri was able to survive the inhuman conditions and weeks of torture only by sheer luck. The photographs he refers to are the horrifying pictures that have caused world outrage since coming to light last month. They show blood-spattered corpses bearing deep red welts on the upper torso and strangulation marks on the neck. Altogether there are 55,000 pictures of 11,000 victims that the Syrian regime allegedly has on its conscience.

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Benjamin Barthe and Stéphanie Maupas

Call Him Caesar - Inside The Syrian Torture Photos

The inside story of the Syrian army photographer assigned to log images of the victims of torture. One day, he'd seen enough, and joined the opposition - photos in hand.

MONTREUX – Behind the closed doors of a hotel room in this Swiss city, away from the commotion of the nearby peace conference on Syria, a man is scrolling through photographs of corpses on his computer screen.

Often naked or covered with rags, the bodies bear traces of different types of torture: laceration, strangulation, electrocution, mutilation. On most of the chests, numbers written with a marker identify the victims. For others, it's a piece of cardboard placed at their feet: "It's the number that's given to the detainees when they're arrested and when they're pronounced dead," explains the man, an opponent to Bashar al-Assad's government named Emadeddin Rachid.

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