Torture and Indefinite Detention

Six Questions on the American “Gulag” for Historian Kate Brown

Posted on Friday, September 22, 2006. Kate Brown is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her book, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland won the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize. As a historian of Soviet history, she has sifted through an array of declassified NKVD and KGB documents about the abuse of prisoners in the Gulag. Her article, “Out of Solitary Confinement: The History of the Gulag,” will be published in Kritika vol. 8, no. 1 (Winter 2007). Brown recently answered a series of questions about the American penal and detention system, especially as it has developed post-9/11. By Ken Silverstein.
1. In 2005, Amnesty International charged that the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo makes the prison “the Gulag of our times.” After public outcry and a media attack, Amnesty retracted the charge. Is the metaphor appropriate?

Soviet arrests were designed to inspire terror. Some people were taken off the street. Others were surprised in their beds in late night roundups. In Soviet prisons, detainees were stripped, searched, and led into special rooms where they were told to face the wall and assume stress positions. Most people were rounded up with no real evidence and without prior investigation. Interrogators withheld food, water, medical assistance, communication with relatives, and sleep until detainees agreed to talk. The most resistant detainees were beaten while handcuffed or tied.

Granted such liberty in dealing with prisoners, some Soviet officers started to enjoy themselves. They made up games, forcing prisoners to dance, smearing glue on their heads, stripping them naked, pouring frigid water over them. Sometimes guards had too much fun and a prisoner died. Then prison-appointed doctors, who often participated in the interrogations, wrote up fictive autopsy reports. Declassified FBI and U.S. Army detailing abuses detainees in U.S. detention centers uncannily echo Soviet NKVD reports. They recount late-night roundups of civilians and describe prisoners held in chambers of extreme heat or cold, chained naked to the floor without food and water for days on end, defecating on themselves, beaten (some to death), forced to dance, to lick their shoes and body parts, to crawl around, and to bark like dogs. American doctors and psychiatrists helped devise methods of inflicting pain and fear to elicit confessions, and they signed false reports when detainees died in custody.

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