Intended for healthcare professionals


Torture and doctors’ dual obligation

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 03 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h589
  1. Julian Sheather, deputy head of ethics1,
  2. Rhian Beynon, communications manager2,
  3. Tom Davies, Stop Torture campaign manager 3,
  4. Kamran Abbasi, international editor4
  1. 1British Medical Association, London, UK
  2. 2Freedom from Torture, London, UK
  3. 3Amnesty International UK, London, UK
  4. 4The BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. Correspondence to: K Abbasi kabbasi{at}

Health professionals need support to put the wellbeing of detainees first

People held in detention are vulnerable. Complex physical and psychological health needs are compounded by loss of freedom that constrains detainees’ ability to assert their interests. The purpose of custodial institutions and environments is not therapeutic. Health professionals who look after detainees find themselves torn by divided loyalties: their primary obligation to patient wellbeing conflicts with their obligations to institutions and employers.1

Involvement of health professionals in torture is indisputable. A recent report by the US Senate Intelligence Select Committee confirmed that the line between medical care and interrogation was breached by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the “war on terror.”2 Health professionals supervised waterboarding sessions and cleared detainees for enhanced interrogation. Medical staff were involved in rectal feeding and hydration, which the CIA considered useful in overcoming detainees’ refusal of food and fluids despite no evidence of its benefit. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, a panel of …

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