Intended for healthcare professionals


Helping to stop doctors becoming complicit in torture

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 26 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c973
  1. Peter B Polatin, health programme manager,
  2. Jens Modvig, health programme manager,
  3. Therese Rytter, prevention programme manager
  1. 1International Department, Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims, Borgergade 13, PO Box 2107, 1014 Copenhagen K, Denmark
  1. Correspondence to: P B Polatin pp{at}

    A new UN resolution should help doctors to follow their consciences when confronted with torture say Peter Polatin, Jens Modvig, and Therese Rytter

    The world has witnessed many examples of healthcare professionals being complicit in acts of torture or inhumane treatment.1 Although various bodies have set out the duties and responsibilities of doctors and other health professionals, a UN resolution passed in 2009 also obliges states to act.2 We assess how the new resolution could help in the fight against torture and cruelty.

    Evidence of complicity

    Medical complicity in torture persists.3 In a study of refugee survivors of torture in Denmark, published in 1990, 20% reported the participation of medical professionals in their abuse.4 During Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in the mid-1990s, medical complicity in the falsification of medicolegal reports of torture, physical mutilation, and death was common, often motivated by fear of retribution by the state.5 In 2007 the reports of nine torture victims in Israel included the names of medical doctors who allegedly participated in their tortures.6 In 2009 the International Committee of the Red Cross report on Guantanamo Bay documented that US health professionals facilitated torture in 14 “high risk detainees.”7 Most recently, in an incident that shows the risks that a whistleblowing physician takes, Ramin Pourandarjani died in Tehran in November 2009 in mysterious circumstances. He had worked as a doctor at the Kahrizak detention centre and had spoken publicly about the torture of imprisoned opposition protesters.8

    Some doctors disregard their ethical obligation not to torture when there are strongly contravening political or social mandates. This may take the form of medical screening or treatment to ensure that torture may continue without causing severe morbidity (the so called fit for flogging assessment9), failure to report on wounds …

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