Scars of Guan­tanamo on in­mates’ men­tal health

Greek-Amer­i­can psy­chi­a­trist Stephen Xe­nakis stresses why the in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques used at the US naval base must never be re­peated

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIAN­NIS PA­PADOPOU­LOS

Stephen Xe­nakis, a re­tired bri­gadier gen­eral and US Army med­i­cal corps of­fi­cer, is still haunted by a 2008 meet­ing at the US naval base in Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba, in a room that had pre­vi­ously been used for in­ter­ro­ga­tions. The psy­chi­a­trist was there to meet Omar Khadr, who had been ar­rested in Afghanistan in 2002 at the age of 15 on charges of killing an Amer­i­can medic by throw­ing a grenade dur­ing a fire­fight. The dis­cus­sion be­tween the two was short.

De­spite the chill of the air con­di­tion­ing, Dr Xe­nakis ob­served that Khadr – 22 at the time – was sweat­ing. “He took off his shirt. It was ev­i­dent that he was hav­ing a panic at­tack, but he wouldn’t ad­mit it,” the for­mer US mil­i­tary of­fi­cial tells Kathimerini. “He only told me he was ner­vous when I asked if I could check his pulse.”

As Xe­nakis was to learn later, one of Khadr’s pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ences in that room in­volved US sol­diers us­ing his body like a mop after he had uri­nated on the floor dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion.

Xe­nakis was not there to grill him with more ques­tions, how­ever. The doc­tor – an Amer­i­can of Greek parent­age – had been called in by Khadr’s lawyers to as­sess their client’s state of mind. “I was shocked when I read ev­ery­thing he had been through,” says Xe­nakis.

In the years that fol­lowed he in­ter­viewed more Guan­tanamo in­mates and re­viewed the med­i­cal files and mil­i­tary records of more than 50 pris­on­ers and ter­ror­ism sus­pects as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of le­gal firms and hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions. His re­search re­vealed that the tor­ture and other in­ter­ro­ga­tion meth­ods used at Guan­tanamo caused post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) and left in­deli­ble scars on in­mates’ men­tal health.

Tough mis­sion

Xe­nakis’s con­dem­na­tion of th­ese tac­tics has been thrust back into the lime­light fol­low­ing sug­ges­tions made by US Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump that he would al­low the rein­tro­duc­tion of banned in­ter­ro­ga­tion meth­ods such as wa­ter­board­ing.

The New York Times re­cently pub­lished a re­port on the long-term dam­age suf­fered by Guan­tanamo in­mates as a re­sult of tor­ture and also pre­sented Xe­nakis’s work. But for the re­tired mil­i­tary man whose fa­ther fought in both World War II and the Korean War, ques­tion­ing the es­tab­lish­ment was not some­thing he did lightly.

“To this day I ask my­self whether I did the right thing. Am I be­tray­ing my fel­low sol­diers? Am I do­ing what’s right for my coun­try? I knew that some of my col­leagues would os­tra­cize me and that it would be harder for me to find a job as a high-rank­ing con­sul­tant in a com­pany after my re­tire­ment, but I felt that I was do­ing the right thing,” he told Kathimerini via Skype from Vir­ginia in the USA.

Xe­nakis’s ma­ter­nal and pa­ter­nal roots lie on the coast of Asia Mi­nor and the Aegean is­land of Chios, with the two fam­i­lies im­mi­grat­ing to the United States in the early 20th cen­tury. Even though his fa­ther had served in the US Air Force, Xe­nakis had not been plan­ning on a mil­i­tary ca­reer but even­tu­ally took that path in or­der to cover his univer­sity ex­penses.

He first wit­nessed the symp­toms of PTSD in Viet­nam War ca­su­al­ties while he was serv­ing as a young psy­chi­a­trist in the 1970s. “You could see their pain and you just had to lis­ten to their sto­ries to un­der­stand,” he says. Decades later, he ob­served the same symp­toms in Guan­tanamo in­mates.

A re­port he pub­lished with Vin­cent Ia­copino for the hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tion Physi­cians for Hu­man Rights records the tor­ture sus­tained by nine in­mates. The long list of abuses in­cluded sleep de­pri­va­tion, ex­po­sure to ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, threats of rape and beat­ings, forced nu­dity, mock ex­e­cu­tions and wa­ter­board­ing. None of the in­mates as­sessed in the con­text of the re­port had a his­tory of men­tal ill­ness be­fore be­ing in­car­cer­ated at Guan­tanamo.

After this mis­treat­ment, how­ever, some suf­fered from night­mares, sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies, de­pres­sion, delu­sions, claus­tro­pho­bia and at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der. In some cases, in fact, psy­chol­o­gists work­ing at the base – in­stead of help­ing the in­mates cope – would pin­point psy­cho­log­i­cal weak­nesses that could be used by in­ter­roga­tors to crack their sub­jects.

“I found it very hard to be­lieve at first that some­one could be so cruel to an­other per­son,” says Xe­nakis. “[The in­ter­roga­tors] kept de­tailed records. Maybe some of them at the time did not con­sider th­ese meth­ods tor­ture. Maybe they be­lieved they were on a mis­sion or act­ing for the good of their coun­try.”

Even to­day, after be­ing re­leased from Guan­tanamo and re­turn­ing to their fam­i­lies, for­mer in­mates suf­fer from men­tal ill­ness. Some have anger man­age­ment is­sues, oth­ers are still in the grips of night­mares or painful flash­backs. Xe­nakis keeps in touch with many of them, in­clud­ing Khadr, who now lives in Canada.

“There is no doubt that what they went through over there will stay with them for­ever,” he says. “I try to tell them that life did not stop there.”

Xe­nakis and Ia­copino re­cently re­ferred to the case of an­other for­mer Guan­tanamo in­mate, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syr­ian na­tional who was im­pris­oned at the base from 2002 to 2014. When the doc­tors eval­u­ated him in 2014, Dhiab was suf­fer­ing from chronic pain and par­tial paral­y­sis be­cause of in­juries sus­tained in an old road ac­ci­dent.

“Our re­view showed that the staff at Guan­tanamo rou­tinely with­held Dhiab’s crutches and wheel­chair and re­fused to give him ba­sic over-the­counter painkillers,” they wrote in a re­port on the Physi­cians for Hu­man Rights web­site on Oc­to­ber 13. They also said that dur­ing a hunger strike, Dhiab was “forcibly fed while strapped into a five-point re­straint chair.”

After he was re­leased from the de­ten­tion cen­ter, Dhiab was given asy­lum in Uruguay but he wants to re­join his fam­ily in Turkey. The psy­chi­a­trist and his col­league note that he was never for­mally ac­cused of any crime.

“Many for­mer Guan­tanamo de­tainees are be­ing re­leased with se­ri­ous med­i­cal con­di­tions,” the au­thors stress in the re­port, re­fer­ring to the cases of a chron­i­cally ill Egyp­tian who was trans­ferred to Bos­nia with­out ad­e­quate med­i­cal sup­port and a for­mer in­mate who died in Kaza­khstan of kid­ney fail­ure just six months after his re­lease and about a decade of force-feed­ing.

Stephen Xe­nakis (left) tes­ti­fies dur­ing a hear­ing of the US Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in 2013 in Wash­ing­ton DC on the is­sue of Guan­tanamo, seen at right in a file photo from 2012.

Re­tired Army Bri­gadier Gen­eral

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