“Torture takes us further from the truth, not closer.” Human rights activist Olga Sadovskaya on state violence and the harm of torture [Cherta – an extract]

1 July 2024

An extract

Source: Cherta

Since the start of military actions in Ukraine, the state’s approach to “unlawful methods of inquiry” and punishments seems to have changed. Previously, we often heard about instances of torture that the state hushed up or denied, but now the state-connected Z-channels publish videos of reprisals against captured soldiers, and those arrested in the Crocus City Hall terrorist act case have been taken to court with obvious bruises. Cherta spoke with Olga Sadovskaya, deputy director of the Committee Against Torture, about why society is prepared to tolerate torture, why fans of losing football teams beat their wives more often, why the torturer suffers no less serious trauma than his victim, and why it is important for a human rights activist to remain in Russia.

Question from the “for dummmies” category. Why is it bad to torture?

There are many arguments here, and each specific group has its own.

For example, for people who hold positions of humanism, the argument is this: torture destroys a person’s humanity. Torture is a situation when a person is denied the integrity of his person, when his body and psyche are wholly at the disposal of someone else. And when you torture a person, you end up with not just one victim: many people are drawn into that circle. The members of his family suffer witness trauma and then live with a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), all his life possibly, if he can’t deal with it. That is the humanistic argument.

There is the legalistic argument: under our Constitution, basically, torture is forbidden. Let’s say you don’t like international documents, for example, the Convention against torture of the UN, of which Russia is still and is unlikely to cease being a part. There are other international obligations, as well, for example, the Geneva conventions, if we are talking about military actions. But even if we keep to the simplest approach, it’s written in our Constitution and spelled out in the Criminal Code that torture is prohibited. This is what our state tells us directly. And if you don’t believe this is so, then how much do you really respect the laws established by our state?

The third argument, for very humanitarian people, as well as for those who have at least some understanding of the sense of self-preservation, is this: people who inflict torture traumatize themselves with that very same torture. There has been quite a lot of research in the States and Great Britain about how people who systematically inflict torture or who have even committed it just one time themselves suffer from very serious PTSD. By torturing someone, they open up a world for themselves where you’re never protected from anything. And they fall into that world themselves. Whether they want to or not, whether they are on the side of the authorities or not—it doesn’t matter. Psychologically they fall into a paradigm where they themselves can become victims.

One more argument, absolutely practical. Let’s say you think that for the sake of a noble purpose torture is allowed—if it’s a terrorist, a child abductor, or someone like that. Basically, torture is the straightest and shortest path to the truth. You see, though, that’s not true.

There is a tremendous amount of research, including by neurobiologists, not just some legal scholars stoking for international standards, but people who study how the organism functions. There is a marvelous neurobiologist, Shane O’Mara, who wrote a book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work. Research shows that torture does not lead you to the truth; on the contrary, it takes you further away from it. If you want to get information out of someone, torture is ineffective, it won’t yield any result for you. He’s just going to tell you anything to make the suffering stop or end. He’ll lie to you, you’ll spend some time checking his story, and he’ll get a respite. Then you’ll realize he lied to you and it will start in all over again.

There are no instances in history when torture in fact helped investigate a crime. All circumstances are established by indirect proof anyway: questioning witnesses, video recordings. There are nonviolent interrogation methods that have been worked out in Norway…

What are these methods?

As yet it’s not a widely applied technique, and its development was slowed by Covid. In 2019, Norwegian scientists and researchers from a scientific institute that works with the police and security services developed a nonviolent interrogation method. This is a specific protocol for posing questions that was created with the participation of psychologists. 

A detailed description of this methodology is not available. But the essence is that this is an exhaustive, very detailed interrogation in the course of which the investigator has to “torment” the person with questions to the extent that he tells everything, bit by bit, that he was trying to hide. Not one hundred percent, but you’re never going to get one hundred percent information from anyone. That’s not even necessary. You just need to get enough information to solve or avert the crime. And you don’t have to torture anyone in the process. 

I’ve heard this argument: support for a total ban on torture is a naive position for sissies. Anything at all can be written in international conventions, but in harsh reality, other rules are at play. What do you think about that point of view?

I’ve come across it. You might think this rather unexpected coming from me, but in general I agree with that point of view. We don’t live in an ideal world where there is no rape, theft, or other crime. In the real world, those things happen. The question is how rampant they are, whether they are becoming systemic, and what happens to those who commit these crimes. I can allow some police officer seeing no other solution than getting information through torture. That means he has to be prepared to bear criminal liability for the crime he commits. As if he had decided to steal, rob, or take a bribe. In this, torture is no different from any other crime. We can’t make it go away altogether, but we can make it so that those who use torture are punished.


Translated by Marian Schwartz

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