The Psychological effects of Torture
Posted on August 25th, 2016

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D. 

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Stephen Biko

Torture is one of the most serious abuses of human rights. Generally torture is referred to as  ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person”, for a purpose such as obtaining information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, ”or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind”.

Torture was used as a governing tool since the dawn of human history. The Law of Hammurabi- the oldest set of laws dates back to around the 18th century B.C. constitutes the famous “eye for an eye” principle, which allowed inducing physical punishment.  Torture was used as a method of coercion or as a tool to control groups seen as a threat.

Torture is about reprogramming the victim to succumb to an alternative exegesis of the world, proffered by the abuser. It is an act of deep, indelible, traumatic indoctrination. (Psychology of Torture – Sam Vaknin). Torture can be physical or psychological or sometimes a combination of both. Torture methods are designed to prolong the victims’ pain and fear for as long as possible without leaving visible evidence.


Although the Third   and Fourth Geneva Conventions agree not to torture protected persons (enemy civilians and POWs) in armed conflicts torture has been practiced in many parts of the world and in almost all major military conflicts.

Torture has profound and long lasting physical and psychological effects.  Torture is a form of collective suffering. It does not limit to the victim. The victims’ family members and friends are also affected. Based on new research psychological and physical torture have similar mental effects.    Often torture victims suffer from Depression, Adjustment Disorder,  PTSD , DESNOS (Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified) Somatoform Disorders and sometimes psychotic manifestations. Based on new research psychological and physical torture have similar mental effects.

The Torture Victim of Hammond Hill prison

The effects of torture can hound a person even decades. Mr. X2 participated in the 1971 insurrection and along with other members he attacked the Jaffna Police station. The assault was a failure and the police arrested most of the rebels. Mr. X2 and others were taken to the police station and beaten with batons and wooden poles for nearly 4 hours. After the assault, nearly 80 people were put   to a small cell where they could not move. All the suspects were kept in the cell fully naked until the afternoon of the following day.

After a few weeks, the suspects were taken to the Jaffna Hammond Hill prison. Hammond Hill fortress was built by the Dutch and they had large nine dungeons to store gunpowder. These dungeons were turned in to prison cells. At the Hammond Hill prison, the prisoners had to face inhuman conditions. The air inside the dungeons was not breathable. The heat was intolerable and due to poor ventilation and sanitary facilities, one prisoner died. During the interrogations, Mr. X2 was beaten and he was compelled to confess his role in the 71 uprising.  His sense of self-worth and self-esteem was crippled. He felt guilty and disgraced. He strongly held the view that he betrayed himself and his friends. He lost the capacity to cope with stressful interpersonal relationships

Following his confession, the hard-core members ill-treated Mr. X2 and treated him as a traitor and on numerous occasions, he was subjected to various physical and mental harassments. Mr X2 spent nearly one year in the Jaffna Hammond Hill prison and was then transferred to Akarayankulam open prison. He was released in 1977.

After nearly 38 years, Mr. X2 still has nostalgic feelings about his days at the Hammond Hill prison where he witnessed torture and experienced unbearable living conditions. Today he is an alienated character, politically inactive and has limited life goals.

The Torture Victim of 88/89

Mr L5 was arrested by the Ruwanwalla Police in 1988 for alleged illegal possession of political documents and posters. He was physically beaten a number of times. His interrogators used to hit him on the head with batons. To prevent, bleeding they used to keep a book on his head and then administered the beatings. Still for all Mr. L5 could feel the shock, pain and vibration. After his release in 1990, Mr L5 led an isolated life. He underwent a psychological assessment in 2001 and according to the assessment; he was experiencing nightmares, intrusions, insomnia, decreased libido and periodical headaches.

A Man who was detained under the PTA

Mr K3 was arrested in Vaunia under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in early 1993. He articulates his experiences in the following account.

When I was arrested I was taken to the ….. camp and questioned  about a claymore explosion which occurred several days ago. I had no idea about the incident.  They put me in so-called Darmachakra torture method. My Hands and legs were tied like the “Dharma Chakra” symbol and while rotating my body two people hit my soles with strips of wood. Then they asked me various questions. I was disoriented and experienced immense pain.

I was ordered to lie down on a table, face downwards, and they hit me with clubs and   S-lon pipes    on my back, feet and soles. After a series of  events I was questioned by Major …..   who was a fine officer from the Army Intelligence . He knew I had no connection with the terrorist act. He ordered my release. If not for Major ….I would have been killed.

After my release, I could not work and the slightest physical exertion gave me bad body pain. I could not sleep and every night I was on guard. I had an unexplainable fear that they would arrest me again. I had mental pictures of

Darmachakra torture method and sometimes I relived that painful event repeatedly. I had no interest in life anymore.  I had no interest in my wife and children.  my life was falling a part……..

The POW who underwent Torture

Lance Corporal P was captured by the LTTE in 1993 in Welioya and kept him in terrible conditions for over 5 years. He was frequently kept in painful positions, beaten and sometimes-electric shock treatment to the genitals were used to extract information. He was kept in the dark and in isolation for months to break the psychological orientation and the biological clock. Constantly he faced threats, humiliation, mock executions and witnessing the torture of others.

After his release in 1998, after the intervention of the ICRC Lance Corporal P was diagnosed with full-blown symptoms of PTSD. He has cognitive impairments, memory lapses, reduced capacity to learn, sexual dysfunction, social withdrawal, ideas of reference and emotional flatness.

Torture is a Double-edged Sword

Torture is a doubled edged sword that can harm not only the victim but the perpetrators as well. Many people who engage in torture have various psychological deviations and often they derive sadistic satisfaction. For a considerable degree, torture fulfils the emotional needs of the perpetrator and willingly he engages in these activities. They lack empathy and their victim’s agonized painful reactions, screaming and pleading give them a sense of authority and feelings of superiority.

The Police Officer who derived a sexual satisfaction torturing a young victim

According to the eyewitness account of Mr Birty Ranjith (who initiated the attack of Jaffna Prison and the author of the book Bakmaha Kandulu that gives a detailed account of events during 71) and many other participants of the Jaffna Police and Jaffna Prison attack in 1971 insurrection, a police officer tortured a captured young rebel in public. He gently touched the victim’s thighs and admired it, then took a knife and made deep cuts. When the young boy was shouting in pain, he was thrilled and excited.  The boy fell down and he was bleeding profoundly. Yet the officer found it very fascinating.

The interrogator of the Eliyakanda Torture Chamber (K.Point)

Rohitha Munasinge’s book titled Eliyakanda wada kandawura (Killing Point) gives a firsthand accounts of   torturing methods that were administered during 1988- 1989 in the South of Sri Lanka. Inmates were constantly subjected to physical torture humiliation and many witnessed the killings of their friends. Those who escaped or were released from the K Point still suffer from numerous psychological ailments.

Private xx2 worked as an interrogator at the K point during the 88/89 insurrection period. He used to physically beat the inmates; used to burn them with lighted cigarettes, pushed the genitals of the victims inside the drawer of a table, closed the drawer causing them enormous pain, and sometimes conducted executions.

He worked in the point for about a year and half then transferred to an Army camp in the North.

From 1992- 1993 his mental health started fading. He could hear the voices of his victims, their shouting in pain. Private xx2 had intense rage and as a result of repeated physical abuse, his wife and children left him. Several times, he tried to commit suicide. In 2002, he was diagnosed with PTSD after a series of psychological assessments and detailed clinical interviews.

Private xx2 had intrusions, nightmares, phobias, ideas of reference, hallucinations and various other trauma related symptoms. He was severely abusing alcohol in order to forget the events that occurred at the K point.

His recollections of the K point concurred with many descriptions given in the book Eliyakanda wada kandawura by Rohitha Munasinge. When Private xx2 was asked the color of the double cab vehicle in which they disposed dead bodies he gave the correct answer. This vehicle was vividly described in the book by the author.

The interrogator who became obsessed with blood

Mr. Lx5 had plenty of methods to torture his victims. He used clubbing, drowning or the bathtub method (in bathtub method or near-drowning method the prisoner’s hands and legs are tied. Then he is taken to a tub of water. Mr. Lx5 is holding the victim’s head and dips the head into the tub. Then the victim cannot breathe. Within a few minutes, Mr. Lx5 releases the victims head allowing him to take a deep breath, again the prisoner’s head is dip to the tub. This continues until the victim loses consciousness). The bathtub method has resulted in a number of deaths in his hand.

Another method he used frequently was cutting the victim with a knife and observing how the victim bleeds. Sometimes he used the gasoline method (the victim is hung from a rope tied to a beam upside down. His hands are tied behind his back. Then a plastic bag with a little gasoline inside is tied to his head. The victim is constrained to inhale the air with gasoline. In this method the victim’s   eyes and nostrils are irritating and he is partially suffocating) and Barbwire Method (when the victim is tied up, a hollow PVC pipe is inserted to the Victim’s anal cavity by using Vaseline cream. When the pipe is 6-8 cm inside the anus a barbwire is put to the anal cavity through the hallow pipe. Then the pipe is slowly taken leaving the barbwire inside the anal cavity. While interrogating the prisoner the tormentor manipulates the barbwire causing enormous pain to the victim) and infamous pen method (a plastic pen is inserted in to victim’s ear with a sudden pressure causing damage to the internal hearing apparatus.  Usually after this type of harm victims, suffer from internal ear infection, brain abscess and meningitis) to extract information.

Among the methods, Mr. Lx5 personally preferred the cutting method in which he cuts the victims body with a sharp knife. When the victim bleeds he gained immense satisfaction. He worked as an interrogator for a number of years and gradually became obsessed with blood. He often wanted to wash his hands with blood. When there were no victims, he used to kill cats and dogs and washed hands with their blood.  In 2003, Mr. Lx5 was diagnosed as having PTSD.

He has nightmares – images full of blood, often he sees a bleeding skull, himself drawing in a pool of blood. He has flashbacks of torture, intense rage, suicidal and homicidal ideas, alienation, impulse deregulation, alterations in attention and consciousness, alterations in self-perception, alterations in relationships with others, inability to trust and inability to maintain long-term relationships, or even mere intimacy.  Mr. Lx5 has many features evident in the Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS).

Torture and the Sri Lankan Society

Unfortunately, torture has been a part of criminal investigation in Sri Lanka. Many local officers reason out torture saying that even FBI and the Scotland Yard use torture to extract information from the detainees.

Torture and murder of Gerard Perera brought a wider attention to this dilemma. Gerard Perera was mistakenly identified and arrested for a murder by some police officers attached to the Wattala Police station.  He was subjected to physical torture. Gerard Perera was assaults with blunt instruments while he had been hung from an overhead beam, which led to acute renal failure. After recovering from his injuries, Gerard Perera filed a FR case against the officers who tortured him. Before giving evidence, he was  gun downed in brought day light in a bus.  The officers who tortured him were implicated in his murder.

In another case, two school boys (age 10 and 12)   were tortured by the police investigating a theft from a school canteen. The boys were hung upside-down and beaten on the soles of their feet, had sharp objects inserted under their fingernails. The two boys suffered a great deal of physical and psychological effects of torture.

Torture of non-criminal suspects and people taken into custody in a political context was widely practiced during the conflict situations starting from 1971 insurrection. On matters of security, many unauthorized places of detention were maintained and torture was routinely practiced. For example, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara universities were used as detention centers in 71, during 88 / 89 Yataro Cafeteria was a deadly destination for the suspects and Thalsevana in the North was used to question the LTTE suspects. Main while the LTTE had their own torture chambers at Devipuram.

The massive imbalance between judicial and executive authority gave a deep void in the social justice permitting torture practices. During these years, a large number of people became the victims of physical and mental torture. Many are suffering in silent still carrying their psychological scars.

Under international law, torture is considered one of the most heinous of crimes. A civilized society should eliminate the endemic practice of torture. The torture affects the victims as well as their family and in the final account, the entire Society. Torture affects the county’s economy, image and the spirit. It is a systematic annihilation of the physical and psychological well-being of the public. It shakes the every foundations and dignity of the society.

One Response to “The Psychological effects of Torture”

  1. Jana Rala Says:

    බටලන්දේ වධකයායැයි හඳුන්වන, කුප්‍රකට දේශපාලකයාද මෙවැනි මානසික විකෘතියකින් පෙලෙන්නෙක් යැයි හඳුනාගෙන ඇත. අප මුලින් සිතාගෙන සිටි පරිදි මොහු වද පැමිණවීමේ ක්‍රියාවට සෘජුවම සම්බන්ධවී නැත. නමුත්, සැකකරුවන්ට වධ පැමිණවීමේ ක්‍රියාවන් දෙස බලමින් සතු‍ටුවී ඇත. එමෙන්ම වධයන්ට භාජනයවන පිරිස් වේදනාවෙන් කෑගසන ආකාරය ඇසීමෙන් සහ නැරඹීමෙන්ද සතු‍ටුවී ඇත.

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