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Torture expert testifies at Guantanamo war court

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — A doctor with expertise in torture was testifying at the war court Tuesday, advising the chief Guantanamo judge on how to conduct a no-harm medical examination on an alleged al-Qaida deputy who was waterboarded by the CIA.

Dr. Vincent Iacopino testified remotely, and mostly theoretically, from a military base in the western United States in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of war crimes. The doctor said he had never examined or met al-Nashiri, 48, the waterboarded detainee, but that mental health exams of victims of torture need to be culturally sensitive and follow protocols.

Defense lawyers got the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, to agree to hear from Iacopino before the judge crafts an order for a secret three-member military board to examine al-Nashiri to determine his competence to stand trial.

Al-Nashiri is accused of orchestrating the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off the coast of Yemen, killing 17 American sailors. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty at the trial before a military jury, which is at least a year away.

His lawyers have long argued the man suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his CIA interrogations. CIA agents waterboarded al-Nashiri, threatened to rape his mother and held a revving drill to his hooded head among other “enhanced interrogation techniques” to break him after his capture in the United Arab Emirates in November 2002.

Iacopino, a Georgetown Medical School trained internist, is an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and leading member of Physicians for Human Rights, an ethics group. He is also an author of the Istanbul Protocol, which lays out how to conduct a medical examination of someone who has been tortured.

Although testifying remotely, Iacopino has experience at Guantanamo. He has reviewed medical files of at least 10 detainees, testified in a number of those cases, and met with one detainee face-to-face in a habeas case, according to Stephen Greene of Physicians for Human Rights.

That detainee was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man who was one of two Guantanamo detainees approved for special interrogation techniques by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In a since overturned order to set Slahi free, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson said the Mauritanian was so abused at Guantanamo from mid-June to September 2003 that his case was “so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.”

According to the judge, Iacopino testified that any information Slahi gave his interrogators was likely unreliable, because of his abuse at Guantanamo, drawing an unfavorable critique from the judge in a footnote: “Dr. Iacopino was earnest and well-meaning, but he can hardly be described as independent. I found his testimony to be biased and unpersuasive, particularly as the subject of his testimony was not the subject of his professional training.”

This time, Iacopino was not testifying on the reliability of evidence from someone who was tortured but on how to conduct a medical examination of people who may have been tortured.

Captives should be examined without security personnel in the room, unless the person being examined had a history of violence, Iacopino said. If officers are present at the examination, Iacopino said, it should be noted in the medical record as a potentially disqualifying factor.

He also urged the judge to appoint specially skilled medical personnel with experience treating torture victims. “Psychiatrists and psychologists, though familiar with diagnoses of anxiety or depression, rarely have knowledge or experience interviewing people who allege torture or documenting PTSD,” he said.
 

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