Volume 1, Number 11
21 May 2001

How do Friends Feel about Torture?

Dear Friends,

We keep hearing of torture and other abuses of human rights all around the world. How do we feel? Are we enraged, or do we just shrug them off as everyday things far from us?

Much of the torture is inflicted by democracies, and much was witnessed or acclaimed by cheering crowds. Given our long history of compassion for the abused, what can Quakers do to relieve or protest these atrocities? I have been collecting newspaper reports on them for five years, and only a small number of my collection is reproduced below, with the countries in alphabetical order. Amnesty International will have many more cases.

This letter is longer than usual. One Friend suggested that I not send it, because it is too gruesome. Yes, I do appreciate the love and compassion throughout the world, but we must also face up to the cruelty. You may be too disgusted (or too bored) to read to the end. If so, please jump to the end from any point in the middle, to read the important query for Quakers.


A couple accused of adultery was stoned to death. They were dropped into separate pits and covered with dirt up to their chests. It took 10 minutes to kill the man and a bit longer for the woman. Townspeople came by the thousands to witness a spectacle not seen in Kandahar for decades (New York Times, 11/3/96).

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, along with thousands of Pakistanis lit with the fervor of jihad, went on a destructive spree this summer, killing wantonly, emptying entire towns, machine-gunning livestock, sawing down fruit trees, blasting apart irrigation canals. It was a binge of blood lust and mayhem described in consistent detail by witnesses. (New York Times, 11/18/97).


Islamic militants descended on Ben Talha, a town of 8,000 shortly before midnight Sept. 22. They carried swords, hunting rifles, Kalashnikovs, fire-bombs, and iron bars. They dragged the people to slit their throats. The intruders killed 95 people by official tally or more than 300 according to villagers, whose accounts were supported by the fresh graves just outside town. (New York Times, 12/28/97).

More than 10,000 civilians are reported to have been slaughtered over the past two weeks. Some were burnt alive, others hacked to death. throats were slashed, babies hurled against walls. The savagery beggars the imagination. (Economist, 1/10/98).


An Argentine tells of dumping "dirty war" captives in the sea. Many of the victims were so weak from torture and detention that they had to be helped aboard the plane. Once in flight they were injected with a sedative by an Argentine Navy doctor before two officers stripped them and shoved them to their deaths. (New York Times, 3/13/95).

1976-83: detainees were hauled into the Navy School of Mechanics, covering four city blocks. They were tossed into windowless dungeons, tortured on racks, beaten with chains and pipes, and shocked with electric prods. Prisoners — some alive, some not — were taken from their holes and flung into the Rio de la Plata from airplanes. Others were incinerated on the grounds in what neighbors mistook for cadets' barbecues. (Washington Post Weekly, 1/19/98).


Cruel punishments (stoning to death and whipping) for sexual "crimes" by women, ordered by the shashlish, village elders and clergy of no legal standing but which have successfully resolved disputes over land and property for years. Recently more judgments seem to be directed against women. (Economist, 6/14/97).


In 1976, Bolivia's and Chile's ruling generals, both in power after military coups, met to exchange information on "subversives" in exile-and to detain those deemed most dangerous by their government. Many of these were handed over, and then "disappeared". (Economist, 11/7/98).


Muslim leaders murdered scores of Bosnian Serbs who remained in Sarajevo when fighting broke out in 1992. (New York Times, 11/12/97).


Military police and hired gunners stormed an encampment of about 500 squatters, killing them, using women as human shields and torturing, killing, and stomping on prisoners. They shot a 6-year-old girl dead as she sought safety. (New York Times, 12/29/94).


From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot ordered more than a million people killed as he tried to bend Cambodia to his radical Maoist vision. People were executed because they owned property, because they lived in cities, because they were professionals. Even literacy became grounds for execution. (New York Times, 6/24/97).


Pictures entered as evidence in court martial show Canadian soldiers at a desert outpost with a blindfolded, bruised and bloody Somali teenager, who was tortured until he died a few hours later. (New York Times, 11/27/94).


Although no accurate count exists, at least 40,000 Chileans were tortured under the Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 until 1990, people who had been members of leftist parties, unions, student groups or even merely bureaucrats in the Socialist government of President Salvador Allende Gossens. (New York Times, 1/3/00).


Human Rights Watch charged that thousands of children have died in China's state-run orphanages from deliberate starvation, medical malpractice, and staff abuse. Pictures of starving children were smuggled out by a former doctor. Strong probability of a policy of deliberate starvation and severe abuse of orphans. Countless abandoned infants, most of them girls. (New York Times, 1/6/96).

The police regularly kick and punch Falun Gong protesters in the square, often bloodying them and knocking them to the ground in full view of the public. (New York Times, 1/11/01).


The armed men, more than 300 of them, marched into this tiny village early on a Friday. They went straight to the basketball court that doubles as the main square, residents said, announced themselves as members of Colombia's most feared right-wing paramilitary group, and with a list of names began summoning residents for judgment. A table and chairs were taken from a house, and after the death squad leader had made himself comfortable, the basketball court was turned into a court of execution, villagers said. The paramilitary troops ordered liquor and music, and then embarked on a calculated rampage of torture, rape and killing. "To them, it was like a big party," said one of a dozen survivors who described the scene in interviews this month. "They drank and danced and cheered as they butchered us like hogs." (New York Times, 7/14/00).


Tens of thousands of Hutu refugees disappeared as they were being driven clear across Congo by Kabila's rebel army. The UN put the toll at 180,000. (New York Times, 5/7/98).


A Croatian's confession describes torture and killing on a vast scale. A former militiaman acknowledged that he killed 72 civilians, tortured prisoners with electric shocks and ran a death camp. He said that after awhile, killing and torture became routine. (New York Times, 9/5/97).


Perhaps 100,000 died in the fighting; perhaps 40,000 disappeared. Hundreds of Amerindian villages were destroyed. Too often their people died with them - 350 in one single notorious piece of armed butchery. Mass graves have been excavated since the fighting stopped. (New York Times, 5/2/98).


Orphans of Haiti disappear, targets of murderous thugs. Seen as potential enemies of the state when they grow up, they are kidnapped from orphanages. No one complains, no one claims the bodies. (New York Times, 9/9/94).


During its decade-long "dirty war" against suspected guerrilla-sympathizers, the Honduran military kidnaped, tortured, and killed dozens of people. (New York Times, 12/21/95).


Every day, year after year, women grotesquely disfigured by fire are taken to Victoria Hospital's burn ward here in India's fastest-growing city. They lie in rows, wrapped like mummies in white bandages, their moans quieted by the pain-obliterating drip of morphine. Typically, these women and thousands like them have been depicted as victims of disputes over the ancient social custom of dowry and as symbols of the otherness of India, a place where lovely young brides are doused with kerosene and set ablaze for failing to satisfy the demands of their husbands' families for gold, cash and consumer goods that come as part of the marriage arrangement. (New York Times, 12/26/00).


President Suharto sent special forces into Aceh, a strongly Muslim province, in 1989 to put down a small separatist movement. In the process, say human-rights groups, the soldiers killed, raped and tortured thousands of people. Such was the climate of fear at the time that few Indonesians ever spoke about it. ( Economist, 9/12/98).


State Department report on human rights depicts arbitrary detentions, summary executions, and widespread torture. (Economist, 7/23/94).


Case of a Palestinian prisoner of Israelis who was kept sleepless in contorted and excruciating positions with a stinking bag over his head, threatened, beaten and subjected to violent shaking until he passed out. (New York Times, 5/8/97).

Korea, North

I was a doctor with a German medical group, "Cap Anamur," and entered North Korea in July 1999. I remained until my expulsion on Dec. 30, 2000, after I denounced the regime for its abuse of human rights, and its failure to distribute food aid to the people who needed it most. North Korea's starvation is not the result of natural disasters. The calamity is man-made. Only the regime's overthrow will end it. Human rights are nonexistent. Peasants, slaves to the regime, lead lives of utter destitution. It is as if a basic right to exist — to be — is denied. Ordinary people starve and die. (Wall Street Journal, 4/14/01).

Korea, South

A South Korean prisoner who has spent 39 years and 7 months in prison. Others who have been released say he is partially paralyzed from a stroke and that his teeth are all gone from decades of torture. He was the head of a military reconnaisance team from North Korea whose boat was seized when it entered South Korean waters. (New York Times, 3/10/98).


The bodies of 15 women, children and elderly members of the Deliaj clan lay slumped among the rocks and streams of the gorge below their village in Kosovo province Tuesday, shot in the head at close range and in some cases mutilated as they tried to escape advancing Serbian forces. In village houses, three men, including Fazli Deliaj, the 95-year-old patriarch, who was paralyzed, were burned to death by Serbs who torched the buildings. Down the dirt track a few miles at Donji Obrinje, three more elderly people lay dead on their backs in their gardens, shot in the head as they apparently came out to plead for their lives. (New York Times, 9/30/98).


When the militiamen arrived in the town of Marshall 8 years ago, they rounded up all Ghanaian immigrants they could find, marching them off with their Liberian friends and sympathizers for execution. Perhaps 1,000 were shot to death. Survivors say that children were swung by their feet by laughing soldiers as their heads were smashed against palm trees. Countless others drowned as they tried to swim across a river to the safety of a nearby island. (New York Times, 2/4/98).


Almost every day now in Malaysia, people are reading newspaper accounts of foreign domestic helpers who have been abused by their employers. The revelations of these secret crimes have horrified a society that sees itself as kind, hospitable and soft-spoken. One young woman said she was kept in a cage by her employer. One was beaten with a heavy object that fractured her skull. One said she was poked with a stick in the gums and forced to beat herself on the thighs with a cane whenever she "made a mistake." (New York Times, 2/20/00).


Mexican rights monitor reports torture of rebels in Chiapas, contradicting the Government's assertion that it has carefully respected the law on this (New York Times, 2/21/95).

Policemen and soldiers commonly kidnap, torture and kill people across Mexico, despite Government reforms aimed at eradicating the abuses and despite the authorities' claims that they have largely ended, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued Thursday. (New York Times, 1/15/99).


Arnaldo Aleman, new President of Nicaragua, vows to wipe out the legacy of the Sandinista past. In 1989, his own properties were seized and he was sentenced to 7 years in jail. While in prison, his wife, Dolores, suffered brain cancer. Despite his pleas, he was not permitted to visit her in her hospital before she died. (New York Times, 10/25/96).


In Saidpur, just hours before the armed forces seized power on Oct. 12, 1999, Government bulldozers demolished more than 500 houses and reduced most of the impoverished village to a dusty pile of rubble where weeping children wandered in the chaos. Saidpur was largely destroyed because politicians and their bureaucratic appointees decided that it was an eyesore and a nuisance on what one official called "the VVIP route," the road where very, very important people like Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif roared past in shiny black Mercedes-Benzes. (New York Times, 10/30/99).


Hundreds of prisoners have been jailed for months without charges. In two years, seven people have died in detention. Police routinely use torture during investigations. Books critical of Arafat have been banned, and critical journalists censored, beaten, and imprisoned. (New York Times, 9/8/96).


A mountain of records detailing repression among United States-backed military regimes throughout South America during the cold war has been brought to light in Paraguay. From floor to ceiling, five tons of reports and photos detailed the arrest, interrogation and disappearance of thousands of political prisoners during General Stroessner's 35-year dictatorship. The documents trace the creation and work of Operation Condor, a secret plan among security forces in six countries to crush left-wing political dissent. (New York Times, 8/12/99).


Punishment precedes trial for some Russian inmates. One said he had been arrested and brutally beaten for stealing less than $5 and had already spent 10 months behind bars awaiting his trial. His lice-ridden, 18th century cell, built for 30, currently warehouses more than 100 men. Many detainees end up spending 2, 3, and even 4 years awaiting their day in court, in packed cells. (New York Times, 1/8/98.)


Omar Serushago, one of the five leaders of the Hutu militia that was responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in 1994, pleaded guilty to one count of genocide, and three counts of crimes against humanity. (Wall Street Journal, 12/15/98.)


After a Serbian sweep, a Kosovo village is stunned by the carnage. 24 people killed in a brutal sweep by Serbian paramilitary units against armed members of the Kosovo Liberation army; they bore signs of torture and summary execution, which were also the hallmarks of the Serbian forces in the war in Bosnia. (New York Times, 3/3/98.)

Sierra Leone

Hacking off hands and feet of ordinary people has been a key weapon of a widespread campaign of terror and butchery waged by rebels in Sierra Leone trying to overthrow this ravaged country's president. The rebels shot thousands of civilians dead and mutilated hundreds of others. Over the weekend, scores of men, women and children, with hands chopped off or dangling limply from their forearms, have flooded the main medical center, Connaught Hospital. A few days earlier, the hospital had received so many wounded and dead that corpses lying in the driveway had drawn dogs and vultures. By the weekend, hospital officials had recorded 2,768 dead in Freetown. (New York Times, 1/26/99).


1.9 million men, women, and children have died since 1993 from the war or war-related causes. Political dissidents have been tortured. Tens of thousands of women and children, deemed "infidels," have been captured as war booty, taken from their families and forced into unpaid labor. (New York Times, 12/8/98.)


The Lord's Resistance Army, with about 1,500 followers, have killed hundreds, abducted thousands of children and terrorized by cutting off noses and ears, breaking legs with hammers and laying land mines. Many villages are so terrified that peasants hid in the fields and trees at night. (New York Times, 6/21/95.)

United States

The CIA taught techniques of mental torture and coercion to at least 5 Latin American security forces in the early 1980s but repudiated the interrogation methods in 1985, according to documents and statements the agency made public today. (New York Times, 1/29/97).

A truth commission report has concluded that the United States gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed "acts of genocide" against the Mayan people during the most brutal armed conflict in Latin America, Guatemala's 36-year civil war. (New York Times, 2/26/99).

A Query for Quakers

Do we live our lives, thoughtless of the suffering of these human souls? Do we protest? If there has been Quaker protest, I have not heard it. Instead, I hear Quakers protesting multinational corporations and sweatshops, each of which hire voluntary workers, pay more than these workers could earn otherwise, and teach them important skills. Has our witness turned kattiwampus?

Yes, I have some thoughts about what we can do. Please wait for them until next week, however. This letter is already too long. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts, please let me know.

Peace if you can find it,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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We Quakers have really jumped on to a bandwagon labeled "anti-globalization" that lacks a driver or a long-term direction — and we seem to be without deeply considered concern for those for whom we should feel tenderness in less fortunate or truly horrific conditions. Often the recent protests for others' welfare appear to be really pleas for help from the confused, given the rapidity of global change.

I certainly look forward to your next letter about doing something about torture, but at the same time perhaps we should also consider how we may help our fellow friends/Friends who are self-tortured in their fears and anxieties. I hope in your next letter you may offer alternatives to shotgun protests to well focused, meaningful action to reduce torture. It could be an antidote for those who feel the need to do something meaningful given the gross injustices around the world.

Living outside the US, I have noticed a recent increase of anti-Americanism which, of course, is not anti-Americans. Just as individuals are feeling increasing helplessness so are smaller countries in the context of these mega forces sweeping our planet. As the last standing super power, America and its corporations will be increasingly attacked as the real or symbolic root of all evils. The Bush Administration's foreign policy actions have only added fuel to the fire and many are starting to wonder if the US has re-ignited the Cold War — particularly in regards to China. Those conclusions are hasty or at least premature if later to be proven true. In any event, I expect to hear more of the same in the coming months. Clearness is in ever increasing need.

— Tom Coyner, Seoul (Korea) Monthly Meeting.

As you well know many Quakers are working against violence in many ways large and small which do not make the news. This particular Friend is working to see that small children in this county are able to grow up without being abused and/or neglected — one Small step in the direction of peace. In our own Meeting many others are working for peace in many other ways. I share your concern that many protesters fail to grant that their adversaries also have that of God in them, but I share their concern for many of the actions of MNCs and of the effects of "globalization" as it now occurs.

— Vici Oshiro, Minneapolis (MN) Friends Meeting.

Madhu, the government of Afghanistan, is waging a war upon women. Since the Taliban took power in 1996, women have had to wear burqua and have been beaten and stoned in public for not having the proper attire, even if this means simply not having the mesh covering in front of their eyes. One woman was beaten to death by an angry mob of fundamentalists for accidentally exposing her arm while she was driving! Another was stoned to death for trying to leave the country with a man that was not a relative. Women are not allowed to work or even go out in public without a male relative. Professional women such as professors, translators, doctors, lawyers, artists and writers have been forced from their jobs and restricted to their homes. Homes where a woman is present must have their windows painted so that she can never be seen by outsiders.

— Sabra Newton, 57th Street Meeting, Chicago, now active with Whittier Meeting, California.

Friends do not have to re-invent the wheel. Joining existing organizations that do work against torture is as good a way to stand up to the practice as having another "Quaker" organization. Especially as Friends don't seem inclined to work together in "organizations."

— Free Polazzo, Anneewakee Creek Worship Group, Douglaville, GA

Note: Free and Vici Oshiro have both pointed out to me that many Quakers are protesting quietly about one or another, or more, of the atrocities mentioned here. — Jack

I am appalled and outraged by the human rights abuses you describe because, for me at least, it is true that human life is of supreme value; it is true that torture and false imprisonment is evil; it is true that fundamental human rights exist and belong to all human beings; it is true that abuse of these rights is wrong. I hold these truths as basic values that, if not universal in and of themselves, at the very least point to, or are consonant with, ontologically real universal values whose ultimate source is God.

— Kenneth Allison, Episcopalian, Paradise Valley, AZ.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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