Chloe Davies

Head banging music in the secret prisons

on 05 October 2009


As yet, President Obama has not outlawed the use of music as a form of torture against prisoners.

“It was pitch black, no lights on in the rooms for most of the time. They hung me up for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb. There was loud music, Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days. Then they changed the sounds to horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds. At one point, I was chained to the rails for a fortnight. The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night. Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off.”

These are the words of Binyam Mohamed who recently returned to the United Kingdom from Guantanamo Bay after almost seven years of illegal US incarceration. He is describing his experience at the notorious CIA ‘Dark Prison’ in Afghanistan where ear-splitting music was pumped constantly into prisoners’ freezing, pitch-black cells. During his long ordeal Binyam suffered a horrific array of torture techniques, including being repeatedly slashed with a razor blade on his genitals in Morocco, yet it is music torture which Binyam describes as hardest to bear. There is nothing more frightening, Binyam argues, than feeling one is losing one’s mind.

It was Binyam’s testimony that triggered Reprieve, the UK legal charity with whom I work, to look into the use of music torture more closely and ultimately take action against it. We found that music had been used across the ‘global spider’s web’ of CIA and US military prisons, in countries from Thailand to Uzbekistan, Iraq to Cuba. Hundreds if not thousands of prisoners have been subjected to the practice which has played a key part in the ‘no touch,’ psychological torture techniques designed to ‘break’ prisoners but leave no marks.

CIA and US military officials knew what music could do to people in combination with stress positions and other techniques. As Sgt. Hadsell explained in 2003, “If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.” British resident Ruhal Ahmed, who was held in Afghanistan and then Guantanamo, said that music invaded your psyche entirely, leaving no place of comfort to enable one to endure the physical torture you were simultaneously subjected to. American Donald Vance, who was held mistakenly in Camp Cropper in Iraq said in an interview after his release that music "was almost constant” and that it “can make innocent men go mad."

The use of music has a history. Concerned by Soviet success at “brainwashing” captives and destroying their wills, intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, funded research programmes to develop their own efficient, psychological techniques. The cornerstone of these techniques, as Alfred McCoy points out, were ‘sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain,’ which were found to create ‘a synergy of physical and psychological trauma whose sum is a hammer-blow to the fundamentals of personal identity.’ Through time, these powerful, ‘no-touch’ techniques migrated across agencies and continents.

The British used sound, hooding and stress positions against Irish prisoners in the ‘Troubles’ and were reprimanded and banned by the European Court of Human Rights. The Israelis used similar techniques against Palestinian prisoners in the Middle East, which were called torture by the UN Committee Against Torture and outlawed. Despite this acknowledged illegality, the use of music has been systematised by US forces in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

Reprieve wanted to alert musicians to the way their music was being used and encourage them to stand up against the practice so it launched Zero dB.org [www.zerodb.org]. Through Zero dB we have been collectively calling on the US government to explicitly outlaw the use of music against prisoners. Thousands have protested against the practice and joined the initiative, including Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Elbow, Massive Attack, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and the UK Musicians Union which represents more than 30,000 musicians.

Since assuming office President Obama has taken important steps towards undoing some of the Bush administration’s most obvious abuses but there is a danger that music torture will continue to slip under the radar. Through Zero dB we are calling on Obama to explicitly outlaw the practice. Please join us by adding your protest by visiting www.zerodb.org

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