TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | FEB – APR 2014 | VOLUME 03 NUMBER 01 & 02
ADRIANA Rivas was just twenty when she joined Augusto Pinochet’s Directorate of Intelligence (DINA). Until 1978 Ms. Rivas worked as a secretary to General Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA, and as an agent of the Lautaro Brigade. Decades later, as a middle aged woman in bucolic Australia, she would recall that time as the best years of her youth[i].
The DINA and General Contreras were the Chilean equivalents of the Gestapo and Heinrich Himmler. The DINA’s purpose was to end dissent through extreme and unmediated repression. The Lautaro brigade, an elite-unit of the DINA, arrested Chileans of all persuasions and tortured them into submission or death.
Catching Victor Diaz Lopez, trade-unionist and Communist leader, was a notable achievement of the Lautaro Brigade. In the next 36 years Mr. Lopez’s wife and daughter received news of him only once. A former prisoner of Villa Grimaldi, the notorious detention-cum-torture centre run by the DINA, brought them a secret message from Marta Ugarte, another incarcerated Communist leader. “Ugarte’s wrists had broken after she was strung up from the ceiling and her breasts were burned with a blow-lamp. She wanted them to know that neither she nor Mr Diaz would ever get out alive.”[ii] Finally, in 2007, a former head of the Lautaro Brigade, known as ‘The Elephant’, confessed that he murdered Mr. Diaz “at a barracks in Santiago in 1977 by asphyxiating him with a plastic bag while cyanide was injected into his veins”[iii].
Adriana Rivas is implicated in that murder. The Chilean Supreme Court has formerly requested the Australian government for her extradition.
‘The Elephant’ reportedly wept when he made his confession; Ms. Rivas, on the contrary, has no regrets. She says she was not involved in actual torture, but defends the use of torture, publicly and vigorously: “They had to break the people – it has happened all over the world, not only in Chile”[iv].
Did ‘The Elephant’ weep because he has seen, heard and smelt torture? Would Ms. Rivas’s insouciance have survived if she had her colleague’s memories?
American columnist Christopher Hitchens ignited a public debate on torture when he argued that US forces used ‘extreme interrogation’ methods but did not resort to ‘outright torture’. His opponents suggested that he try out water-boarding to see if it is outright torture or not. Mr. Hitchens did just that; he hired several veterans of US Special Forces and got himself water-boarded. His doubts evaporated after less than ten seconds of water-boarding. ‘Believe me, its torture’[v], was the telling title of his resultant Vanity Fair essay.
Mr. Hitchens got his encounter with water-boarding videoed[vi]. That visual experience would suffice for most people to come to the same conclusion about water-boarding and about torture in general.
Defending/ignoring torture is easier, when it is just an idea, a policy, an unspecified something which happens to an unknown someone, elsewhere. Anti-torture efforts, in order to succeed, must make ordinary citizens understand what torture means and entails. Torture must cease to be an almost anodyne word and become a sight and a sound, if we are to garner the mass support necessary to end torture.
Many, if not most, Sri Lankans reportedly support the activation of the currently dormant death penalty, especially as a way to contain a growing crime wave.
There is one stumbling block: the authorities cannot find a hangman. Three successful applicants fled when confronted with the reality of the gallows.
Last week, Lankan authorities opened a former prison to the public, before turning it into a museum and a hotel (a new one was built in its stead). The gallows was the absolute favourite destination of the sea of visitors; most of them reportedly supported its reactivation. This public enthusiasm contrasts sharply with the reaction of the country’s most recent trainee-hangman. The 40 year old “got shocked and afraid”[vii] after seeing the gallows and fled, as his predecessors did.
For Adriana Rivas torture is nothing more than a much hackneyed word; she had never seen it being done, let alone experienced it. But for ‘The Elephant’, a former practitioner, torture is images, sounds and smells. For the public who saw the gallows and clamoured for its reactivation, hanging is an abstraction. They can support hanging knowing that they will never have to witness a hanging, let alone execute it. But for the trainee hangmen, the sight of the gallows turned hanging from an abstraction into reality. He realised what his job will actually entailed, and the horror of it was more than he could bear.
Across the world, public indifference has created the enabling environment in which torture flourishes. Once unshielded from the reality of torture and informed in bald terms what tolerating torture entails, many people may feel differently about torture. Sadism, fortunately, is not a human norm.
In the poem, ‘An Unwritten Theory of Dreams’, Zbigniew Herbert concludes, “The torturers sleep soundly their dreams are rosy….” Historical experience indicates that this is not always the case. There are many torturers who cannot sleep easy; quite a few end up as whistleblowers and dedicated campaigners against torture.
It is those who know torture only as an abstraction who sleep soundly, and have rosy dreams, even as other people are tortured in their name. How many of them would tolerate torture for any reason, however lofty, if they know what an electric prod does to a human body and sensory deprivation does to a human mind?
Tisaranee Gunasekara is a political commentator based in Colombo