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Environment

Sticks and stones break bones, but songs can hurt forever

As the UN marks its International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, victims' advocates warn that torture that leaves no physical scars – like torture by music – can be as devastating as other techniques.

A man's back, covered in large cuts

Not all scars left by torture are visible to the eye

For most of the world, the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26 is a reminder of the human rights violations faced by torture victims around the world. But the victims themselves need no reminder.

Many are left not with bruises or broken bones, but with emotional and psychological scars that remain years after the torture has ceased – and music is being used by some as torture instrument of choice.

"You lose control and start to hallucinate. You're pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side. And once you cross that line, there's no going back. I saw that threshold several times," said Binyam Mohamed in an interview with UK prisoners' advocacy organization Reprieve.

Binyam Mohamed was one of the first Guantanamo detainees to be released

Binyam Mohamed suffered harsh interrogation techniques in Guantanamo

Mohamed, a former inmate at the "Dark Prison" in Afghanistan and later at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, is one of an untold number of victims of so-called "no-touch" torture techniques. These are psychological techniques, often employed during interrogations, that leave few or no physical marks on the victim but can have lasting psychological consequences.

Music used as part of 'cruel and degrading' treatment

Mohamed described an interrogation period of almost three weeks, during which he was hung up in stress positions and allowed to sleep only occasionally and for a few hours at a time, as music played at ear-splitting volumes. This music changed from tracks by popular rappers Eminem and Dr Dre to "horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds", Mohamed said.

"The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night - plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off", he added.

In February this year, the United Kingdom Court of Appeal ruled that Mohamed's treatment at the hands of United States authorities was "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment".

A Guantanamo Bay detainee sits in the medium-security facility

Some former Guantanamo Bay detainees claim they were tortured with music

Another former Guantanamo detainee, Ruhal Ahmed, described the musical torture as more brutal than physical abuse. "It's as if you had very bad migraines, and then someone shows up and yells at you – and take that times a thousand. You can't concentrate on anything," he told German weekly Der Spiegel. "Before that, when I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain."

Human rights groups say that in recent years there's been an increase in the use of these invisible torture techniques, though the use of music as a torture instrument dates back centuries. "We know that even from ancient history, extremely loud sounds were used to terrify populations before the army was going to invade the next day," said Dr Suzanne Cusick, a musicologist at New York University.

"We know that people would be put in caves so that the resonant qualities of the stone would make small sounds seem ubiquitous and extremely loud," she added. "But we can now do that for hundreds of people at a time and we don't depend on a cave to do it."

Invisible torture techniques go back decades

Modern use of music and sound during interrogations grew out of research from the 1950s in which the CIA conducted experiments to work out how to break people psychologically. The British subjected Irish prisoners to white-noise in the 70s and the Israelis made similar use of music in the 90s.

More recently, experts have accused the US military of holding suspected terrorists inside shipping containers and blasting them with a playlist including not only rock songs like Metallica's "Enter Sandman" but also contemporary children's music such as Barney the Purple Dinosaur's "I Love You".

Metallica lead singer James Hetfield performs

Tracks from rock group Metallica have been used during prisoner interrogations

"With a rhythm, it's like beating … it gets into your head and you get a headache and you cannot concentrate on anything else," said physician and psychotherapist Dr Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, from the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims.

The Center treats around 500 children and adults from over 50 countries every year, all of them victims of torture or war-related violence. Music is a particularly versatile form of psychological interrogation as it can be tailored to cause maximum discomfort for specific prisoners.

"In Turkey it was used that they played very patriotic music or march music [to] these two Kurds who had been fighting for their independence. So this was a way to humiliate them," Wenk-Ansohn said.

Many survivors suffer flashbacks from acoustic triggers in everyday life – anything from a neighbor's radio, a car stereo, shopping centers or TV – and many are never able to relate to music in the same way.

New York University's Cusick told of one former Guantanamo detainee who had once been a great fan of garage and hard rock. "He seldom listens to music of any kind now. He's extremely sensitive to ambient sound," she said. "He remains paranoid now four years after his capture and imprisonment. He believes that he could be picked up at anytime and consequently he's afraid to go out of his house."

Not torture – just interrogation, say authorities

The US has never considered its use of music during interrogation to be torture at all. US authorities described it as an enhanced interrogation technique – the same term used to describe sleep deprivation, stress positions and water-boarding.

Last year US President Barack Obama ordered an end to the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, limiting the CIA to interrogation methods explicitly outlined in the US Army Field Manual on interrogations.

The use of music during interrogations is not one of the currently accepted interrogation methods. Stacy Sullivan, a New York-based counter-terrorism expert with international NGO Human Rights Watch, said that the organization has no evidence that the use of music during interrogations is on the increase.

US President Barack Obama speaking at a podium

US President Barack Obama ordered an end to "harsh interrogation techniques" in 2009

Yet there is some evidence that the practise still enjoys widespread use. Wenk-Ansohn from the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims said that the Center is seeing a growing number patients who have been subjected to treatment involving music, including those who have come from Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Dr. Julia Duchrow from Amnesty International Germany said these techniques violate the International Declaration of Human Rights and should be recognized as torture "because the music is used intentionally to make someone suffer and create pain in the brains and the mental health of the person." Duchrow added that Germany, like other countries that have signed declarations that prohibit torture, has a responsibility to fight against torture in all its forms.

While some musicians like James Hetfield of Metallica may not publicly object to their music being used to interrogate suspected terrorists, others like Tom Morello from the politically active Rage Against the Machine are angry that their music has been used to hurt people.

They and over 25 other bands, as well as Amnesty International, are engaged in an ongoing campaign to end the use of music as an instrument of torture.

Author: Cinnamon Nippard/Sophie Tarr
Editor: Anke Rasper

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