Intended for healthcare professionals

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Analysis Assessing torture

Interrogating the role of mental health professionals in assessing torture

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 29 January 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c124

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Sadistic torturers are trained, not born

Dear Editors,

For decades, psychology University professor Mika Haritou-Fatourou has been studying and trying to understand the psychological profile of people involved in organized torture.
She interviewed hundreds of victims, tens of arrested members of ESA, the Greek Military Police Forces of the recent dictatorship, in the process.
She concluded that there exists no specific exclusive psychological profile: it’s a matter of training.
Everyone could be trained in secret military centers to become a successful sadistic torturer!

Young, 22 year old, tall, robust, healthy Greeks were recruited from the army ranks. They came from poor, honest families and had no criminal record. They couldn’t be suffering from mental illnesses or be receiving any kind of psychiatric medication, because they would have been excluded from enlisting in the Greek Army.
For a few weeks they were sent to “torture training centers”, where they were systematically shouted at, kicked, beaten, offended, terrorized and ridiculed.
Finally, a complex blood-oath ritual would make them part of the elite team.

When they arrived, they were described as nice young boys, who liked dancing, horse riding and picnics with their girlfriends.
After training, they were described as sadistic monsters, who tortured, amputated and even killed suspects on a daily basis, for years, in order to extract information.

Professor Mika Haritou-Fatourou concluded that these boys were not born to become sadistic cruel torturers, but were effectively trained. In fact, anyone, with forced training of a few weeks, could become like them!
They were the “boys next door”, and nobody could suspect they had this appalling secret job, not even their relatives.

Her results have inspired a 1982 Danish documentary.

Concluding, this extensive and detailed study of Greek sadistic professional torturers teaches us that it is very easy to train someone into becoming a monster. Perhaps by initially victimizing them, too.

Competing interests: Dr Stavros Saripanidis is an active voluntary member of a non-profit organization that fights for women's rights.

15 August 2016
Stavros Saripanidis
Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology
Thessaloniki, Greece