No Comment — December 18, 2009, 10:48 am

A Medical Murder in Pinochet’s Chile

Last week, a twenty-seven-year-old murder mystery was solved, grabbing headlines around the world. Former Chilean President Eduardo Frei died under mysterious circumstances in 1982, at the age of 71, as he was busily investigating accusations of human rights abuses including torture and “disappearings” by his successor, General Augusto Pinochet. A week ago Monday, a Chilean investigating judge ruled his death a homicide and charged six individuals as conspirators. The New York Times reports:

An autopsy report blamed septic shock after stomach hernia surgery, but a new autopsy this year by University of Chile pathologists identified two chemicals in his body that attack the digestive system — one that is used in mustard gas and another found in rat poison. ”He was injected with toxic substances, which produced other complications that deteriorated his immune system,” Judge Alejandro Madrid told reporters Monday. ”That was the cause of death.”

But one fact remarkably escaped attention in most English-language reporting, even while it played heavily in Spanish-language accounts: the criminal inquiry concluded that Frei was murdered by a conspiracy of doctors. The key figure named is a surgeon, accused of having administered the lethal toxins during medical procedures he supervised at a hospital. As the prosecutors charge, this doctor had close ties to the Chilean military and intelligence community and was prepared to do their bidding. Three of the other defendants are also doctors, who, according to prosecutors, knew of the plans and their implementation and stood by silently. They are charged as co-conspirators. The prosecution charges that the doctor was coopted by General Pinochet’s intelligence services and told to silence forever one of the most credible voices raised against him, a former president and a political conservative. One of the dark secrets that made the long and brutal Pinochet dictatorship so effective was its cooption of the medical profession. The enlistment of a group of doctors to murder a former president marks one of the high points of this scheme.

Of course, the involvement of healthcare professionals in human rights abuses is not simply a matter of historical interest. In America’s era of state-sponsored torture, healthcare professionals including medical doctors also played a decisive role. In the Justice Department’s torture memoranda, while reviewing specific torture techniques, lawyers repeatedly note that doctors will be present to insure that the techniques are not applied in such a way as to cause death or the failure of vital organs. In thousands of pages of documents discussing the application of torture techniques, the names of medical professionals who participated in the torture sessions consistent with the guidance given by the Justice Department memos are simply blacked out, with the government citing the doctors’ “right to privacy.”

Similarly, so-called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) containing other healthcare professionals (psychologists and psychiatrists mainly) were deeply involved in the design and implementation of torture protocols for individual prisoners. Healthcare professionals were also involved in implementing a forced-feeding regime for prisoners held at Guantánamo (and potentially other prison sites), in violation of clear international guidelines provided by the Declaration of Malta. A suspiciously large number of these hunger-strikers have met death in detention under dubious circumstances initially dismissed by the Bush Administration as “suicides.” That characterization is longer credible, and the government’s failure to undertake serious investigations into those deaths today heightens concern about them.

This deep involvement of healthcare professionals in a system of torture and abuse is a profound crisis for the professions involved, and so far their response has been disgraceful. All have embraced pious statements opposing torture, and all have scurried away from actual accountability. In California, Louisiana, and Alabama, complaints have been brought against individuals known to have participated in the systematic torture and mistreatment of prisoners in direct violation of rules of ethics. One key figure in the nightmare at Guantánamo has actually emerged as the head of a medical school in Ohio. In each case, the ethics oversight board has dismissed the complaint without conducting an investigation of any sort, frequently stating that it has “full discretion not to investigate” cases it does not wish to investigate. Others in the medical profession point to government secrecy surrounding the torture programs and suggest that any efforts to investigate the role that doctors played in them would be futile. A substantial faction within the professions, led by doctors with suspicious ties with the Pentagon and the intelligence community, insists on a “safe harbor” under which doctors are entitled to rely on assurances from the government that what they do is legal. That is an effort to implement the Bush Administration’s scheme to obliterate professional ethics, which prohibit involvement in torture in any form, and prohibit doctors from even being present while torture is being conducted. It parallels efforts that were undertaken by Pinochet in Chile, in fact.

The objective of these professional organizations appears to be to avoid the issue and hope that it is forgotten. This aspiration does them no credit, and it may well backfire. As President Bachelet said last week, the disclosure of the murder of President Frei “goes to show that though it may take a while, justice always prevails.” The healthcare professionals who participated in the Bush-era torture schemes will also eventually be exposed. By obstructing proper investigations and accountability, professional associations will not stop this process, but they do risk further serious damage to their own reputations, and those of their members. Have they joined in a conspiracy of silence?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Legends of the Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A bond with reality has gone, and sometimes you wonder whether that fosters our feeling that movies are a fleeting art.”
Photograph by Alexander Perrelli
Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

It was revealed that reading material recovered during the U.S. raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan included Popular Science, Time, silk-screening instructions, and a suicide-prevention manual called “Is It the Heart You Are Asking?”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today