Doctor says torture must be diagnosed

by Sean Madigan

As more victims of hard-to-detect torture seek asylum in Minnesota, medical practitioners must learn how to spot the symptoms of newer kinds of physical punishment, a torture expert said Tuesday.
Dr. Neal Holtan of the Center for Victims of Torture told about 30 medical students in the Moos Towers Auditorium of the horrors he’s encountered when treating those persecuted for their political views.
Holtan crafted his message closer to health care issues rather than human rights because of his audience. But federal and international officials in recent months have demonstrated an increased awareness of torture and what can be done to reduce the suffering.
“It has become more and more scientific, how to inflict torture without inflicting any physical evidence,” Holtan said.
The Students International Health Committee presented the lecture. Jim Letts, a first-year medical student who organized the speech, said the group puts on one event per month to inform students about international health issues they might encounter.
Holtan stressed the need to treat torture victims both physically and mentally. Many victims experience anxiety, poor memory and an inability to concentrate.
Physical evidence of torture can be more clearly recognized. Many victims, Holtan said, have linear scars, as a result of being beaten or whipped with electrical cords or coat hangers. Victims can also have visible deformities of the ears and feet. A common method of torture is beating the bottoms of feet, causing deformities in the arch and extensive nerve damage.
“It can make you wonder about the human race and what we are capable of doing,” Holtan said.
Politicians are wondering the same thing. Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., is the sponsor of a bill that would pump more funding into institutes like the Center for the Victims of Torture.
On Saturday, Grams and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the center, just off the University’s East Bank campus, to promote the Survivors of Torture Support Act. Besides boosting funding, the bill proposes to change U.S. immigration policy, giving victims of torture priority among requests for political asylum, said Steve Behm, a legislative aide to Grams.
Annan and Grams spent more than 45 minutes speaking with victims at the center.
Staffed by more than 20 physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, the center opened in 1985. In 1991, the center moved to its current home near the University.
Holtan estimates that in the last 10 years the center has helped more than 500 people. Some victims are Liberian, Ethiopian and Somali. Others come from Southeast Asia and Central America. But possibly the most traumatized victims of torture of any group are Bosnians, Holtan said.
More than two-thirds of the victims are men. The majority of the victims are between the ages of 21 and 40. Most are married and about half speak English.
Immigrants and refugees are referred to the center from a variety of sources, including lawyers, teachers, social workers and Amnesty International.
Holtan’s job is to identify and document physical evidence of torture. This evidence is then used in claims for political asylum.