What are the 10 most prevalent forms of torture and why?

Amnesty International members protest reported abuses of detainees at the hands of U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in Paris in January 2007. See more pictures of protests.
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In 2000, human rights group Amnesty International and African social sciences organization CODESRIA published a handbook for watchdog groups monitoring prisons where torture is suspected. The guide offers insight into just what qualifies as cruel, inhuman and degrading (CID) treatment.

The book also discusses the most common forms of torture among them beatings, electric shocks, hanging a person by the limbs, mock executions and forms of sexual assault, especially rape.


In addition to Amnesty International's list, we'll also look at five common forms of torture cited by the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, including burns, penetrating injuries, asphyxiation, forced human experimentation and traumatic removal of tissue and appendages.

While most of these endured horrors are physical, or black torture, mock executions are white torture (psychological) [source: Cesereanu]. There's little distinction between black-and-white forms of torture; both are equally insidious. As the humanitarian group SPIRASI (Spiritan Asylum Services Initiative) puts it, "Methods of physical and psychological torture are remarkably similar, such that one should not separate their effects from each other" [source: SPIRASI].

What follows are 10 prevalent forms of torture that prisoners throughout the world endure. In the next section, we'll examine a form of torture that's been in use for thousands of years but remains no less painful today. Before proceeding, readers, please be aware that this article contains descriptions of violence that may not be suitable for everyone.

10: Burns

Shwygar Mullah, former nanny to Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife Aline, arrives in Malta for medical treatment. Mullah reports she was tortured by Aline Gaddafi.
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Among the many stories of abuse from Moammar Gadhafi's regime emerging from Libya in the summer of 2011, the details of Shwygar Mullah's torture proved especially heart wrenching. Shwygar was working for Moammar's son Hannibal as a nanny for his two children when, she says, Hannibal's wife Aline became upset with her for not keeping the couple's children quiet. In her rage, Aline allegedly brutally burned Shwygar with boiling water. Today, burns cover Shwygar's entire body, leaving her face nearly unrecognizable.

Her story is a testament to the pain and lasting scars -- both emotional and physical -- that burn victims suffer, and yet it remains a common and established form of torture. In fact, evidence of the practice dates back to 2000 BC, when criminals were branded with marks that forever testified to the crimes they'd committed [source: Kellaway].


More recently, specialists from Stockholm's Centre for Torture and Trauma Survivors found that out of 83 political refugees tortured in Bangladesh, 78 percent suffered burns, most of which were inflicted by cigarettes or, in some cases, hot water or an iron [source: Edston]. Torture victims can also suffer burns from exposure to chemicals or extreme cold. These wounds are particularly susceptible to infection if not properly treated, and victims often carry the scars from their torture for the rest of their lives.

9: Penetrating Injuries

This Kashmiri man, who was picked up by the Indian Army in 2004 under suspicion of being a militant, shows two scars he received while in custody. While captive, he was interrogated, beaten and cut by a knife.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

All torture is horrific, but penetrating injuries like stab wounds and gunshots can be particularly traumatic. A Boston University study showed that such injuries stand out among modes of torture for leaving lasting neurological damage. Those findings make perfect sense; guns and knives are capable of inflicting severe internal damage, often in ways the perpetrator didn't intend. Bullets and knife wounds can separate the spinal cord, for instance, or destroy ligaments and tendons, causing permanent disabilities. What's more, victims often don't receive the necessary medical care, leading to infection and poor healing.

Although gunshot wounds often occur when a person initially is being captured, penetrating injuries are used methodically to torture victims as well. The nonprofit organization International Society for Human Rights reports that victims of torture in China have had their fingertips pierced with bamboo, needles and other sharp objects pushed through the skin on their backs and their eardrums ruptured with small sticks. Examination of previously mentioned refugees from Bangladesh revealed numerous wounds from "sharp violence" as well. In fact, 79 percent of the group studied suffered wounds inflicted by knives, swords, needles and glass, among other instruments of pain [source: Edston].


8: Asphyxiation

Vietnam, 1968: A U.S. soldier questions an enemy suspect with the help of a water-boarding technique.
Photo Courtesy United Press International

Suffocating is frightening enough, but recent research reveals a physiological reason for its effectiveness as a method of torture. Researchers from the University of Iowa found that, when mice breathed air with increased levels of CO2 -- the same gas that builds up in people when they suffocate -- the mice responded by freezing in place. Upon further study, the researchers discovered that increased levels of CO2 produced higher pH levels in the mice, triggering a strong fear response in the part of their brains wired for survival [source: Wilcox]. These studies might explain why, besides the obvious reasons, we panic when we're deprived of oxygen and, by extension, why asphyxiation is such a brutal method of torture.

The torturer can cut off the victim's air supply in a number of different ways. Asphyxiation can cause seizures and loss of consciousness, and unlike some other forms of torture, it always has the potential to kill the victim. Other possible long-term effects include chronic bronchitis resulting from inhaling liquids, as well as permanent brain damage leading to memory loss or even coma.


While torture is often used to extract information from victims, the next form of torture on our list takes this concept to a terrifying new level.

7: Forced Human Experimentation

Prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany in April 1945, just after the camp was liberated by the army of Gen. George S. Patton.
Eric Schwab/AFP/Getty Images

We often think of torturers as thugs and bullies armed with crude but effective implements of pain, but the perpetrators of forced human experimentation are much more sophisticated in their approach. Practitioners sometimes pursue goals like curing disease or advancing our understanding of the human body, but their methods are abhorrent.

Perhaps the most infamous examples of human experimentation occurred throughout World War II, carried out by Japan's Unit 731 and by doctors working in Germany's concentration camps. Unit 731 used prisoners of war as human guinea pigs, infecting them with horrific diseases and dissecting living victims in an effort to develop deadly biological weaponry. These experiments killed an estimated 10,000 prisoners, and testing of the biological weaponry on Chinese villages resulted in an additional 300,000 deaths [source: McNaught].


Experiments carried out by Nazi doctors were no less horrifying. Prisoners of concentration camps were pushed up to -- and sometimes beyond -- the limits of survival. Victims were forced to sit for hours in icy water, infected with all manner of disease and inflicted with wounds mimicking those received on the battlefield. Doctors then would treat victims with reckless, painful procedures that often ended in death.

While the atrocities committed during World War II stand out for the sheer scale and cruelty of the experiments, forced human experimentation has taken place for thousands of years. Ever since those early days, opponents of the practice have debated whether insight gained through human suffering should be used by the larger scientific community.

6: Traumatic Removal of Tissue and Appendages

Abdul Jalil (forefront) stands inside Ghazi Stadium on Jan. 26, 2002, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Jalil lost his hand when the Taliban accused him of being a thief and cut it off as punishment.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

We've explored some of the atrocities committed by Nazi doctors, but we haven't examined one of their most gruesome efforts: transplanting limbs and tissue. Victims had their arms, legs and other body parts removed in horrifying fashion. Doctors then attempted to transplant these body parts to other victims, but the results were equally gruesome, leaving everyone involved disfigured and fighting for their lives.

Amputation and tissue removal have long been used as forms of torture. Torturers commonly remove fingernails, teeth and digits from victims, but any body part could be a target.


A traditional form of punishment, particularly under the Islamic law of Shariah, has involved removing the body part from a criminal that the person used to commit a crime. Throughout the Middle Ages, for instance, criminals in Britain would face amputation of hands, ears and other body parts by executioners, and the practice isn't by any means obsolete [source: Kellaway]. In 2007, for instance, an Iranian man had four of his fingers amputated after being convicted of multiple robberies [source: New Zealand Herald]. The physical pain and lifelong impairment such torture brings is only part of the punishment; such amputees can also become social pariahs because of their wounds.

The next entry on our list is torture in its most basic form.

5: Beatings

Inmates in a Manila, Philippines, jail in 2006. The country was criticized by the U.S. for subjecting its inmates to torture, including beatings.
Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

One Danish study of 69 refugees found that 97 percent of survivors reported being beaten at the hands of their captors [source: Olsen et al.].

"Beatings are universal, although implements may vary," write authors Michael Peel and Vincent Iacopino in "The Medical Documentation of Torture." Beating can be as simple as punching, slapping or kicking a victim. It may come spontaneously, or in conjunction with other methods. Captors may also deliver beatings with any manner of blunt weapons.


There are some specific methods to this kind of torture, too. The falanga (or falanka, depending on where in the world you're being tortured) method involves beating the soles of the feet. This type of torture can leave victims' feet insensitive to touch and temperature and cause lasting, severe pain and an altered gait while walking [source: Prip and Perrson].

4: Electric Shocks

Medical electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is performed under anesthesia to effectively treat mental illnesses such as depression. However, similar devices are used without anesthesia in torture to cause pain and disorientation.
Carl Purcell/Three Lions/Getty Images

Electric shock torture methods haven't been around as long as many other widely used methods -- humans didn't figure out how to harness electricity until the late 19th century. Once established, however, electricity soon came into use as a method of torture.

"Americans didn't just develop electric power," writes torture expert Darius Rejali in The Boston Globe, "they invented the first electrotorture devices and used them in police stations from Arkansas to Seattle." Electrical shocks can be delivered using stun guns, cattle prods and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) devices.


This type of torture can be as crude as introducing a current to a victim via a cattle prod or other device designed to deliver a shock attached to a car battery. Shocks are used as a torture method because they're cheap and effective. What's more, shocks tend to leave behind little obvious physical trace of the agony they produce.

3: Sexual Assault

Rwandan women wait for medical treatment at a clinic in Kibuye in 2005. During the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s, an estimated 25,000 women were tortured through rape.
Jose Cendon/AFP/Getty Images

Rape is a common form of torture, especially during wartime. Rape of men, women and children has occurred during conflicts across the globe. In the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Muslim Bosnian women were subjected to systematic rape at the hands of Serb soldiers. In the Congo, from 2000 to 2006 alone, more than 40,000 women and children were raped [source: Booth]. In Rwanda in the early 1990s, an estimated 25,000 women were raped. Soldiers reportedly told their victims that they were "allowed to live so that they will die of sadness" [source: Booth].

Both men and women may suffer sexual assault. Whether the assaulter uses his or her body to inflict harm or brandishes a device to penetrate the victim's body, the act is constituted as rape. What's more, experts believe estimates of the number of men who've endured rape torture are low, as men may be more reluctant to report such episodes [source: Burnett and Peel].


While sexual assault is defined specifically, some experts assert that all torture is a form of rape because the victim's body is violated.

2: Hanging by Limbs

A 15-century tribunal uses ropes to elicit a confession in this engraving from a painting by A. Steinheil
Rischgitz/Getty Images

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong employed a form of torture called "the ropes." In "Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam," the book's authors describe this type of torture many American servicemen faced after capture, explaining, "Although there were many variations of this torture, it usually took the form of tying the elbows behind the back and tightening them until they touched or arching the back with a rope stretched from the feet to the throat" [source: Wilson et al.]. The tension created in the muscles by this extreme tightening --exacerbated by hanging victims from their limbs -- can cause lasting nerve damage.

Dissident Turkish national Gulderen Baran was tortured by police when she was in her early 20s. In addition to other forms of torture, she was hung by her arms, both on a wooden cross and from her wrists bound behind her. Baran suffered long-term damage to her arms, losing strength and movement in one arm, and the other suffering total paralysis [source: Amnesty International, U.S. Dept. of State].


1: Mock Executions

This Iraqi man, if led to believe he will be soon killed, will have endured a mock execution.
David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

In 1849, famed Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky found himself facing death by firing squad for his political activities. But death never came; the execution was staged, and Dostoyevsky instead found himself headed to a labor camp in Siberia. His mock execution seems to have affected him for the rest of his life, however. Many of his later novels focused on criminals, violence and forgiveness, all subjects very familiar to the author. Needless to say, Dostoyevsky's experience wasn't unique.

A mock execution is any situation in which a victim feels that his or her death -- or the death of another person -- is imminent or has taken place. It could be as hands-off as verbally threatening a detainee's life, or as dramatic as blindfolding a victim, holding an unloaded gun to the back of his or her head and pulling the trigger. Any clear threat of impending death falls into the category of mock executions. Water boarding, the method of simulated drowning, is also an example of mock execution.

The U.S. Army Field Manual expressly prohibits soldiers from staging mock executions [source: Levin]. But reports of some U.S. military members staging these executions have emerged from the Iraq War. For example, in 2005, one Iraqi man questioned for stealing metal from an armory was tortured by being asked to choose one of his sons to die for his crime. When his son was taken around a building, out of the man's sight, he was led to believe that the son had been executed when he heard gunshots fired. Two years earlier, two Army personnel were investigated for staging mock executions. In one circumstance, an Iraqi was taken to a remote area and made to dig his own grave, and soldiers pretended he would be shot [source: AP].

The U.S. military is certainly not the only group to violate international law regarding mock executions as torture. In 2007, 15 Britons were captured by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. After their second night, the prisoners were lined up facing a wall, blindfolded and bound. Behind them, the detainees heard guns cocked, followed by the clicks of firing hammers falling against nothing [source: Kelly].

Despite bans against them, mock executions continue as a means of torture -- perhaps because of their effectiveness in breaking a detainee's will. The effects of such threats on the victim's life are deep and lasting: The Center for Victims of Torture reports that torture victims who've undergone mock executions described flashbacks in which they felt as though they had already died [source: CVT].

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