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Module 5: Physical Evidence of Torture and Ill-Treatment
- Answer: B
Although acute lesions may be characteristic of the alleged injuries, most lesions heal within about six weeks of torture, leaving no scars or, at the most, non-specific scars.
- Answer: C
A complete physical examination is recommended unless the allegations of torture are limited and there is no history of loss of consciousness or neurological or psychological symptoms that may affect recall of torture allegations. Under such circumstances, a directed examination may be appropriate in which only pertinent positive and negative evidence is pursued on examination.
- Answer: F
All of the forms of historical information listed may be useful in correlating regional practices of torture with individual allegations of abuse.
- Answer: C
Inquiries should be structured to elicit an open-ended, chronological account of events experienced during detention.
- Answer: E
In addition to location, size, shape and color, each of the factors listed above should be included in clinical descriptions of skin lesions.
- Answer: B
Lacerations are caused by a tangential force such as a blow or a fall and produce tears of the skin. The wound edges tend to be irregular, and often any may be bruised and/or abraded. Tissue bridges may be present. Incisions are caused by sharp objects like a knife, bayonet, or broken glass that produce a more or less deep, sharp and well-demarcated skin wound.
- Answer: C or D
The photograph shows a large 4 cm x 6 cm contusion with underlying edema and/or hematoma formation. There are a series of parallel linear abrasions that correspond to the ridges of a police baton (see photo below). These physical findings should be considered “highly consistent” with or “virtually diagnostic” of the alleged injury since it is very unlikely they were caused by any other mode of injury or pathophysiological process. “Proof” of torture implies 100% certainty and should be avoided unless it can be supported by the evidence. In this case the injury may have been inflicted in the context of “resisting arrest.”
[Courtesy of Amnesty International, The Netherlands.]
- Answer: A, B, D
Contusions cause blood to leak from small vessels. If the skin and subcutaneous tissues are thin, the bruise becomes apparent relatively quickly and may take the shape of the weapon used. The extent and severity of a contusion are related to the amount of force applied, but more importantly vascular structures affected. Elderly people and children who have loosely supported vascular structure will bruise more easily than young adults. Many medical conditions are associated with easy bruising. As the extravasated red cells are destroyed, the aging bruise goes through variable colour changes. Speculative judgments should be avoided in the evaluation of the nature and age of blunt traumatic lesions.
- Answer: B, C, D
Full thickness wounds heal in one of two ways. When the wound is small and the edges are opposed, it heals from the top down (by primary intention). This tends to leave a small, tidy scar. If this process cannot occur, especially if the wound gapes, it heals from below (by secondary intention). This is a slow process and prone to infection, and will leave a wide scar. Scars related to self-inflicted injuries are generally superficial and within easy reach of the dominant hand. Contusions and abrasions may cause hyperpigmented scars, especially in darker skins, due to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Also scars of distinctive shape and if in multiples suggest intentional injuries rather than those caused accidentally.
- Answer: B
The photograph shows an oval scar above the left hip that is approximately 7 cm x 4 cm. It is a macular lesion with a depigmented, atrophic center, lacking normal skin accessories (hair). The periphery shows a hyperpigmented zone about 1 cm. wide. This scar is most consistent with a 2nd degree burn from a heated instrument.
- Answer: A
This scar is the result of an abrasion injury as the individual was dragged across a rough surface.
- Answer: C
This man sustained blunt trauma to the right supraorbital region which resulted in a typical laceration scar. The appearance of the scar is the result of the healing of irregular wound edges and tissue bridges.
- Answer: B
The photograph shows 2 linear incisions resulting from slashes with a knife. The biconvex appearance of the scars suggest that they healed by secondary intention. These scars are most consistent with incisions because of the sharp, well-demarcated appearance of the scars.
- Answer: C
The multiple linear, scars are most consistent with lacerations from whipping with an electrical wire.
- Answer: D
The photograph shows evidence of multiple cigarette burns 7 days following the injury.
- Answer: A, B, C
Whenever possible, the examination of women alleging rape should be performed by an expert in documenting sexual assault. Otherwise, the examining physician should speak to an expert or consult a standard text on clinical forensic medicine. A thorough physical examination should be performed, including meticulous documentation of all physical findings. It is rare to find any physical evidence when examining female genitalia more than one week after an assault. Even during examination of the female genitalia immediately after rape, there is identifiable damage in less than 50 per cent of the cases. It is unwise to draw conclusions about a refusal to consent to genital examination. If the alleged victim refuses consent, the doctor should record any relevant observations on the alleged victim’s demeanour, such as embarrassment or fear, or cultural considerations.
- Answer: F
All of the statements listed are true.
- Answer: A
Rectal tears with or without bleeding may be noted. Disruption of the rugal pattern may manifest as smooth fan-shaped scarring. When these scars are seen out of midline (i.e. not at 12 or 6 o’clock), they can be an indication of penetrating trauma.
- Answer: A
Poor quality photographs are better than none, but they should be followed up with professional photographs as soon as possible.
- Answer: E
In some cases, the use of diagnostic tests may aid in corroborating allegations of torture. Before obtaining such tests, however, clinicians should carefully consider the potential value of such tests and their inherent limitations in light of the level of “proof” needed in a particular case, the potential adverse consequences for the individual, and any resource limitations. Generally, diagnostic tests are not warranted unless they are likely to make a significant difference to a medico-legal case.
Answer: B Although acute lesions may be characteristic of the alleged injuries, most lesions heal within about six weeks of torture, leaving no scars or, at the most, non-specific scars. Answer: C A complete physical examination is recommended unless the … Continue reading
Head trauma is among the most common forms of torture. Even repeated minor head trauma can cause permanent damage to brain tissues. This can in turn cause permanent physical handicap. Lacerations and abrasions of the head and their late consequences should be documented as above. Scalp bruises are frequently not visible externally acutely unless there is swelling. Bruises also may be difficult to see in dark skinned individuals, but will be tender to palpation.
Survivors of torture often report that they were unconscious at times, but it is impossible for them to know what happened unless they were with a reliable witness. It is necessary to try to differentiate between loss of consciousness following blows to the head, post-traumatic epilepsy (see below), asphyxiation, pain and exhaustion, or any combination of these.
Many victims of torture have suffered blows to the head, and many complain of persistent or recurrent headaches, whether or not they have sustained any head injury. Generally the headaches are psychosomatic or due to tension headache. In some cases with a history of repeated blows to the head, it is possible to feel areas of hyperaesthesia (extreme sensitivity of neurological sensation) and some thickening of the scalp from scar tissue.
Headache may also be the initial symptom of an expanding subdural haematoma. There may be associated psychological changes of acute onset, and a CT scan or MRI must be arranged urgently, if one is available. It may also be appropriate to arrange psychological or neuropsychological assessment. Soft tissue swelling and/or haemorrhage will usually be detected with CT or MRI. In cases of trauma caused by falls, contracoup lesions (on the opposite side to the point of impact) of the brain may be observed on investigation, whereas following direct trauma, the main damage to the brain may be seen directly under the point of impact.
Violent shaking of the upper body has been reported as a form of torture (as it has as a form of child abuse). Survivors complain of severe headaches and persistent changes in cognitive function. In these cases no injuries are visible. Shaking can lead to death due to cerebral oedema and subdural bleeding. Retinal haemorrhages have been noted on post-mortem examination and, when seen in children, are very suggestive of shaking injuries.
Immediately after severe head injury there may be concussive convulsions, but these do not necessarily lead to epilepsy. Convulsions (or seizures) in the first week or so after a severe head injury tend to be tonic-clonic. They may recur for a year or more, but are not generally lifelong. Severe head injuries leading to brain lesions, specifically in the temporal lobe, can cause convulsions that start months or years after the incident. The latter are complex partial seizures.
Typically (>90% of cases), complex partial seizures start with an aura (a strange feeling that precedes the convulsion). This is followed by an absence that can last up to two minutes. Concurrent automatic movements, particularly lip smacking have been reported. After these episodes there is usually a period of a few minutes of disorientation. Often the aura is described as a strange feeling in the stomach, but it may involve bizarre smells or tastes. These must be differentiated from the re-experiencing phenomena of PTSD where the person is always capable of being roused and never completely loses consciousness.
In most countries the prevalence of epilepsy in the population is 2%. About 65% of epilepsy is due to complex partial seizures. The cause of complex partial seizures is unknown in 45% of cases. Traumatic events including birth events account for 3% of it. The likelihood of acquiring epilepsy after a head injury depends on the severity of the injury (see table).
|Degree of head injury||Loss of consciousness||Relative risk of epilepsy||Duration of increased risk|
|Minor||< 30 minutes||1.5||5 years|
|Moderate||< 24 hours||2.9 (three times)||—|
|Severe||> 24 hours||17.2 (17 times)||20 years|
Survivors of torture rarely have an accurate account of their head injuries, and unless they have an external reference, they cannot know for certain how long they were unconscious. One problem with attributing epilepsy to head trauma is that there is rarely any information about the individual’s neurological state prior to the incident.
Head trauma is among the most common forms of torture. Even repeated minor head trauma can cause permanent damage to brain tissues. This can in turn cause permanent physical handicap. Lacerations and abrasions of the head and their late consequences … Continue reading
While it is rare that a victim of rape during torture is released, it is still possible to identify acute signs of the assault. In these cases, there are many issues to be aware of that may impede the medical evaluation. Recently assaulted victims may be troubled and confused about seeking medical or legal help due to their fears, sociocultural concerns or the destructive nature of the abuse. In such cases, a doctor should explain to the individual all possible medical and judicial options and should act in accordance with the individual’s wishes. The duties of the physician include obtention of voluntary informed consent for the examination, recording of all medical findings of abuse and obtention of samples for forensic examination. Whenever possible, the examination should be performed by an expert in documenting sexual assault. Otherwise, the examining physician should speak to an expert or consult a standard text on clinical forensic medicine. When the physician is of a different gender from the victim, he or she should be offered the opportunity of having a chaperone of the same gender in the room. If an interpreter is used, then the interpreter may also fulfil the role of the chaperone. Given the sensitive nature of investigation into sexual assaults, a relative of the alleged victim is not normally an ideal person to use in this role. The individual should be comfortable and relaxed before the examination.
A thorough physical examination should be performed, including meticulous documentation of all physical findings, including size, location and colour, and, whenever possible, these findings should be photographed and evidence collected of specimens from the examination. The physical examination should not initially be directed to the genital area. Particular attention must be given to ensure a thorough examination of the skin, looking for cutaneous lesions that could have resulted from an assault. These include bruises, lacerations, ecchymoses and petechiae from sucking or biting. Lesions on the breasts, particularly from bites, should be enquired about in women who have been sexually assaulted. When the legs are examined, the inner thighs should be inspected thoroughly. Where women have had their legs forced apart, there may be finger bruising, scratches, cigarette burns, incisions and other wounds, or their late consequences.
When genital lesions are minimal, lesions located on other parts of the body may be the most significant evidence of an assault. Even during examination of the female genitalia immediately after rape, there is identifiable damage in less than 50 per cent of the cases. Anal examination of men and women after anal rape shows lesions in less than 30 per cent of cases. Clearly, where relatively large objects have been used to penetrate the vagina or anus, the probability of identifiable damage is much greater.
Where a forensic laboratory is available, the facility should be contacted before the examination to discuss which types of specimen can be tested, and, therefore, which samples should be taken and how. Many laboratories provide kits to permit physicians to take all the necessary samples from individuals alleging sexual assault. If there is no laboratory available, it may still be worthwhile to obtain wet swabs and dry them later in the air. These samples can be used later for DNA testing. Sperm can be identified for up to five days from samples taken with a deep vaginal swab and after up to three days using a rectal sample. Strict precautions must be taken to prevent allegations of cross-contamination when samples have been taken from several different victims, particularly if they are taken from alleged perpetrators. There must be complete protection and documentation of the chain of custody for all forensic samples.
If the woman is being examined shortly after the rape, it is important to discuss issues of pregnancy and emergency contraception, and however long has passed since the assault, sexually transmitted diseases (especially gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis and trichomoniasis) and other infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B (HBV) and HIV must be considered (see below), and treated where present if the necessary facilities are available. If rape occurred within the previous seventy-two hours, consideration must be given to the administration of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) for preventing infection by HIV and this depends on a detailed assessment of the nature of the sexual assault. The risk of infection with HBV should be assessed and the need for immunisation determined.
Some women are raped persistently over a long period which increases the likelihood that they will become pregnant; in some cases they are then detained until it is too late to consider termination of pregnancy (if that would otherwise be an option). In such cases routine ante-natal examinations should be performed including, if possible, ultrasounds. This will enable the time of conception to be estimated.
While it is rare that a victim of rape during torture is released, it is still possible to identify acute signs of the assault. In these cases, there are many issues to be aware of that may impede the medical … Continue reading
Witness and survivor testimony are necessary components in the documentation of torture. To the extent that physical evidence of torture exists, it may provide important confirmatory evidence that a person was tortured. Torture victims may have injuries that are substantially different from other forms of trauma. Although acute lesions may be characteristic of the alleged injuries, most lesions heal within about six weeks of torture, leaving no scars or, at the most, non-specific scars. This is often the case when torturers use techniques that prevent or limit detectable signs of injury. Under such circumstances, the physical examination may be within normal limits, but this in no way negates allegations of torture. As the Istanbul Protocol makes clearly, the absence of such physical evidence should not be construed to suggest that torture did not occur, since such acts of violence against persons frequently leave no marks or permanent scars. A detailed account of the patient’s observations of acute lesions and the subsequent healing process often represent an important source of evidence in corroborating specific allegations of torture or ill-treatment.
A medical evaluation for legal purposes should be conducted with objectivity and impartiality. The evaluation should be based on the physician’s clinical expertise and professional experience. The ethical obligation of beneficence demands uncompromising accuracy and impartiality in order to establish and maintain professional credibility. When possible, clinicians who conduct evaluations of detainees should have specific essential training in forensic documentation of torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. They should have knowledge of prison conditions and torture methods used in the particular region where the patient was imprisoned and the common after-effects of torture. The medical report should be factual and carefully worded. Jargon should be avoided. All medical terminology should be defined so that it is understandable to lay persons.
In addition, the physician should not assume that the official requesting a medico-legal evaluation has related all the material facts. It is the physician’s responsibility to discover and report upon any material findings that he or she considers relevant, even if they may be considered irrelevant or adverse to the case of the party requesting the medical examination. Findings that are consistent with torture or other forms of ill-treatment must not be excluded from a medico-legal report under any circumstance.
Witness and survivor testimony are necessary components in the documentation of torture. To the extent that physical evidence of torture exists, it may provide important confirmatory evidence that a person was tortured. Torture victims may have injuries that are substantially … Continue reading
As stated in Module 3 , the pysician should obtain a complete medical history, including information about prior medical, surgical or psychiatric problems. S/he should:
- Be sure to document any history of injuries, medical conditions and surgery before the period of detention and any possible aftereffects;
- Avoid leading questions;
- Structure inquiries to elicit an open-ended, chronological account of the events experienced during detention.
Specific historical information may be useful in correlating regional practices of torture with individual allegations of abuse. Examples of useful information include descriptions of torture devices, body positions, methods of restraint, descriptions of acute or chronic wounds and disabilities and identifying information about perpetrators and places of detention. While it is essential to obtain accurate information regarding a torture survivor’s experiences, open-ended interviewing methods require that a patient disclose these experiences in their own words using free recall. An individual who has survived torture may have trouble expressing in words his or her experiences and symptoms. In some cases, it may be helpful to use trauma event and symptom checklists or questionnaires. If the interviewer believes it may be helpful to use trauma event and symptom checklists, there are numerous questionnaires available; however, none are specific to torture victims. All complaints of a torture survivor are significant. Although there may be no correlation with the physical findings, they should be reported. Acute and chronic symptoms and disabilities associated with specific forms of abuse and the subsequent healing processes should be documented.
The individual should be asked to describe any injuries that may have resulted from the specific methods of alleged abuse. For example, bleeding, bruising, swelling, open wounds, lacerations, fractures, dislocations, joint stress, haemoptysis (coughing up blood), pneumothorax (lung puncture), tympanic membrane perforation, genitourinary system injuries, burns (including colour, bulla or necrosis according to the degree of burn), electrical injuries (size and number of lesions, their colour and surface characteristics), chemical injuries (colour, signs of necrosis), pain, numbness, constipation and vomiting. The intensity, frequency and duration of each symptom should be noted. The development of any subsequent skin lesions should be described and whether or not they left scars. Ask about health on release; was he or she able to walk, confined to bed? If confined, for how long? How long did wounds take to heal? Were they infected? What treatment was received? Was it a physician or a traditional healer? Be aware that the detainee’s ability to make such observations may have been compromised by the torture itself or its after-effects and should be documented. It is important to note that acute lesions are often characteristic since they may show a pattern of inflicted injury that differs from non-inflicted injuries, for example by their shape, repetitiveness, and distribution on the body.
Elicit information of physical ailments that the individual believes were associated with torture or ill-treatment. Note the severity, frequency and duration of each symptom and any associated disability or need for medical or psychological care. Even if the after-effects of acute lesions are not observed months or years later, some physical findings may still remain, such as electrical current or thermal burn scars, skeletal deformities, incorrect healing of fractures, dental injuries, loss of hair and myofibrosis. Common somatic complaints include headache, back pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, sexual dysfunction and muscle pain. Common psychological symptoms include depressive affect, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks and memory difficulties (see Module 6 ).
As stated in Module 3, the pysician should obtain a complete medical history, including information about prior medical, surgical or psychiatric problems. S/he should: Be sure to document any history of injuries, medical conditions and surgery before the period of … Continue reading
The clinician should not hesitate to seek any further consultation and examination that he or she considers necessary for the evaluation. Those who need further medical and/or psychological care should be referred to appropriate services as discussed in Module 3. During ongoing care, further evidence may be detected that may not have been foreseen. If there is a rehabilitation centre for torture survivors in the region, the clinician may contact them for further support and advice.
In countries with there is a tradition of systematic torture, and pressure on health care professionals, the examining clinician may also prefer to refer patients to specialists to increase the number of medical witnesses to the torture (e.g. consulting with a dermatologist for a simple contusion).
The clinician should not hesitate to seek any further consultation and examination that he or she considers necessary for the evaluation. Those who need further medical and/or psychological care should be referred to appropriate services as discussed in Module 3. … Continue reading
Physical evidence of torture is often revealed in a comprehensive examination of the skin. Description of skin lesions should include the following:
- Localisation (use body diagram): symmetrical, asymmetrical
- Shape: round, oval, linear, circumferential, etc
- Size: (use ruler)
- Surface: scaly, crusty, ulcerative, bullous, necrotic
- Periphery: regular or irregular, zone in the periphery
- Demarcation: sharply, poorly demarcated
- Level in relation to surrounding skin: atrophic, hypertrophic, macular
Common injuries to the skin can be classified as:
- Abrasions (or grazes)
- Contusions (commonly known as bruises)
- Lacerations (also, commonly but confusingly, known as cuts)
- Incisions (including stab wounds)
- Burns and scalds.
An abrasion is a scraping away of the superficial portions of the epidermis or destruction of the superficial layers by tangential application of force against the rough surface of the blunt object. Abrasions are more commonly observed over bony prominences or where a thin layer of skin overlies bone. When the blunt instrument scrapes off the superficial layers of the skin the surface is striped. If abrasions are deep and extend down to the dermis, capillaries may bleed, and serosanguineous fluid deposits on the surface of the skin that forms a brownish scab when it dries out. The abrasion remains moist until it forms a scab which consists of a hardened exudate. During the two or three days following the injury, abrasions produce fluid that crusts over. This makes them very susceptible to infection, which delays and distorts the healing process. The scab organizes in a few days and covers the lesions for up to a few weeks, and then it usually leaves a pink intact surface after detaching. The pink colour gradually fades, within a few months. Unless the abrasions are of full-thickness, they will heal with few remaining signs, although they can leave hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation.
Linear abrasions are referred to as scratches. These are caused by pointed objects such as wire-ends and pins. Sometimes victims of torture may be thrown from moving vehicles so that they slide on the road, or they may be dragged out on the ground during arrest or capture. In these cases extensive abrasions may be seen, and particles of dirt, sand, etc. will predispose the abrasion to infection. The same particles may become embedded in the skin and leave a sort of ‘tattoo’ effect that can persist for years.
Abrasions may show a pattern that reflects the contours of the instrument or surface that inflicted the injury. Identifiable patterns of scratches can be seen, for example, from fingernails. Elongated broad abrasions can be caused by the friction on the skin from objects such as ropes and cords. When the blunt force is directed perpendicular to the skin over the bony prominences, it will generally crush the skin at that point. Sometimes if there is anything between the object and the skin, its imprint may be observed on the skin, such as a shoe print. In hanging and other asphyxiations by ligature, patterned abrasions can often be found on the neck.
A contusion or bruise is caused when blunt trauma occurs to the subcutaneous tissue resulting in rupture of blood vessels with extravasation into the neighbouring soft tissue. The continuity of the skin surface is unbroken. Contusions may be present not only in skin but also in muscles and internal organs. A haematoma is a focal collection of blood in the area of the bruise.
Contusions cause blood to leak from small blood vessels, making the area tender and sometimes boggy. If the skin and subcutaneous tissues are thin, the bruise becomes apparent relatively quickly and may take the shape of the weapon used, although this might not be obvious in darker skins. The extent and severity of a contusion are related to the amount of force applied, but more importantly vascular structure of the traumatised area affects them. Elderly people and children who have loosely supported vascular structure will bruise more easily than young adults. Many medical conditions are associated with easy bruising or purpura, including blood disorders, vascular disorders, and vitamin and other nutritional deficiencies. Certain types of medication can also impair clotting and result in more extensive bruising.
Sometimes the shape of the bruise helps to identify shape of the blunt instrument that caused the injury. For example, a blow from a baton or heavy stick often leaves two parallel lines of bruising (tramline bruising) caused by the blood being pushed sideways by the contact. Ideally bruises should be photographed as soon as possible (see Medical Photography section below), before they spread or fade.
When the bruise is deep, the blood tracks slowly to the surface, and it may be several hours or even days before anything is visible. It is often helpful in such cases to re-examine the patient a day or two later. In such cases the extravasated blood (blood that has been lost from the vessels) follows tissue planes and may emerge some distance from the original injury, and is unlikely to be tender. For example, bruising of any part of the face may appear below the eye. Thus the site of the bruise is not the site of the injury, but the size of the bruise could be evidence of the force of the blow. This should be made clear in any report.
Bruises change colour and fade over a period of hours and days as the blood pigments are metabolised and absorbed, but this takes a variable period of time in different parts of the body following a single incident. However, if there are bruises at different stages of resolution in the same place, this could support allegations of repeated assaults over several days.
Speculative judgments should be avoided in the evaluation of the nature and age of blunt traumatic lesions since a lesion may vary according to the age, sex, condition, and health of the patient, the tissue characteristics, and the severity of the trauma. Fresh and old injuries can be seen together on people who have a long history of torture.
Irradiation, corticosteroids, scurvy, diabetes, hepatic cirrhosis, uraemia, denervation of the wounded area, blood loss, cold, concussion, and shock all inhibit wound healing. Wounds heal faster in young people. Bruises resolve over a variable period, ranging from days to weeks. Reddish-blue, blue or purplish-black bruises are almost certainly recent. As the extravasated red cells are destroyed, the aging bruise goes through variable colour changes of bluish-green, greenish-yellow and brown. Estimating the age of non-recent bruises is one of the most contentious areas of forensic medicine.
Lacerations are caused by a tangential force such as a blow or a fall and produce tears of the skin. The wound edges tend to be irregular, and often any may be bruised or/and abraded. There might be tissue bridges (where the skin has not separated along the entire length of the wound). Lacerations develop easily on the protruding parts of the body since the skin is compressed between the blunt object and the bone surface under the subdermal tissues. With sufficient force, however, the skin can be torn on any portion of the body.
Incisions are caused by sharp objects like a knife, bayonet, or broken glass that produce a more or less deep, sharp and well-demarcated skin wound. The acute appearance is usually easy to distinguish from the irregular and torn appearance of lacerations. The term ‘cut’ should never be used in a report, as colloquially the term usually means a laceration.
Incisional wounds have clearly defined edges and, on close inspection, it may be possible to see that hairs have been cut. There are no tissue bridges. Sometimes the wound can be jagged, suggesting that it was not caused by a single stroke. However, because the skin stretches as it is cut, the size of the wound is not necessarily related to the size of the implement used.
Small wounds and those that are supported by surrounding tissues heal at the surface, and they may be difficult to see after only a few days. If the wound is in a part of the skin that is not supported, it will gape. Unless it is sutured or otherwise closed, it will heal from inside.
Stab wounds are incisions that are deeper than they are wide. They should be examined carefully because of the risk of damage to deeper structures.
Burns and scalds
Burns are usually caused by dry heat, but the skin can also be scalded with very hot liquids or burnt with chemicals. Burning is a form of torture that frequently leaves permanent changes in the skin. The shape of the lesion can sometimes, but not always, reveal the shape of the object that caused the burn. The damage caused by heat is proportional to the temperature and the duration of exposure. Burns are classified into three degrees, according to severity.
- In superficial (first degree) burns, there is no permanent damage to the epidermis. They present as a reddening of the skin.
- In partial thickness (second degree) burns, some of the epidermis is destroyed and there may also be damage to deeper tissues. They present as moist, red, blistered lesions and are normally very painful.
- In full thickness (third degree) burns, there is complete destruction of the epidermis and significant damage to deeper tissues. Sometimes third-degree burns are seen with complete destruction of all layers of the skin. The shape of the lesions may or may not reflect the shape of object that caused the thermal injury. They may not be as painful as partial thickness burns. If the burns are widespread, there is usually death from shock and fluid loss.
Cigarettes are commonly used by torturers to inflict pain. Most cigarette burns are superficial and fade over a few hours to a few days. They tend to be circular, have a diameter of up to 1 cm. They cause an erythematous (reddening of the skin) and an oedematous circle that can blister. Deeper burns are caused when the lit cigarette is pressed against the skin for a longer time. When this happens the lesion is deeper and there might be a full thickness burn in the centre surrounded by blisters. If the cigarette is rubbed in it leaves a larger and more irregular lesion. The cigarette fire has a conical structure and its intensity may vary on different parts of the surface. Sometimes there is indistinct blister formation and the lesion is deeper in one part, with blisters partially or totally surrounding it. There may be complete disruption of the epidermis and most of the basal layer.
Electric burns usually consist of a red brown circular lesion, 1 – 3 mm in diameter, usually without inflammation, and may result in a hyperpigmented scar. The skin surfaces involved must be examined carefully because the lesions are often not easily discernible.
Electrical burns may produce specific histologic changes, but these are not always present, and the absence of such changes in no way mitigates against the lesion being an electrical burn. The decision must be made on a case by case basis as to whether or not the pain and discomfort associated with a skin biopsy can be justified by the potential results of the procedure.
Burns from hot objects tend to take the shape of the surface that caused the burn. The wound contracts as it heals, so the lesion may be smaller than the object.
Liquids flow on contact with the skin, and this can leave a distinctive pattern reflecting the survivor’s posture at the time of the incident. Scalds lose heat rapidly so the resulting lesion diminishes away from the point of first contact, whereas chemical burns are often more extensive. A number of lesions from scalding in different parts of the body are suggestive of torture. A single burn might be caused by torture but could also be due to an accident either at work or otherwise. A good occupational history is paramount.
Many lesions comprise areas of different types of wounds. For example, as noted above, many lacerations are bruised and abraded at their edges. Wounds caused by broken glass may be a mixture of incision and laceration.
Bites tend to be a mixture of laceration and crush injury. Human bites, especially those that are sexual in nature, can show petechiae from sucking. Petechiae are obvious in the twenty-four hours following the assault. The marks from human bites have a semicircular shape and appear blunt. Animal bites cause deeper and sharper wounds. It is important to look for lacerations caused by the claws.
It is often the case that a health professional will see a survivor of torture months or years after the incidents. In such cases the wounds are likely to have healed to a greater or lesser extent. Healing is influenced and often impaired by many factors that can be present in places of detention including persistent, untreated infection; repeated trauma to the same area; and malnutrition. When faced with the examination of old injuries, it is thus important to obtain a detailed history from the individual of the acute appearance of the injury, any treatment received (such as sutures, antibiotics) and a description of how the wound healed and in what time frame. Such descriptions from a lay person may in themselves assist in corroborating allegations since they may indicate medical phenomena that a lay person would not usually be aware of. Such a description of wound healing may also reveal elements of the detention which are also deliberately neglected, such as:
- Inadequate healthcare provision
- Poor toilet and washing facilities
- Insufficient or nutritionally incomplete diet.
The commonest physical finding following the late examination of survivors of torture is scarring. Most scars are nonspecific, but some individual scars can be helpful in supporting a history of torture, as can the pattern of scarring. Occasionally the individual will have photographs of the acute lesions, and these can be very helpful in giving an opinion on the cause of the late signs. However, before citing such photographs in an expert report, it is essential to be certain of the date of the photographs, and that they really are of that individual.
Full thickness wounds (those that go through the epidermis) heal in one of two ways. When the wound is small and the edges are opposed, it heals from the top down (by primary intention). This tends to leave a small, tidy scar. Pockets of infection inside can become abscesses.
If this process cannot occur, especially if the wound gapes, it heals from below (by secondary intention). This is a slow process and prone to infection, and will leave a wide scar. When the original wound was straight, and especially if it was an incision, the scar tends to be symmetrical, with curved edges, and is widest at the middle (a biconvex scar).
The number, position and size of lesions may indicate other aspects of the conditions in which the individual was detained. For example, if the floor of a cell is flooded for any reason, and there is no access to a toilet so that the person has to urinate and defecate in the cell, the detainees will have to sit or stand in dilute sewage. In these circumstances, minor wounds, whether caused by assault or accident, may well become infected and can leave many small scars around the lower legs or buttocks. These must be differentiated from lesions left by childhood skin infections and other causes. All scars should be documented, including those that the individual feels were caused in incidents other than torture.
If a scar has suture marks around it, this should be documented, as this demonstrates that medical care was given. Equally it should also be noted if there are scars from wounds that have clearly not received medical attention, or have been seriously infected. Scars from surgery should also be noted, especially if it is alleged to be associated with torture, for example the removal of a ruptured spleen.
Sometimes scars are self-inflicted in order to support a weak medico-legal case, but these are often apparent. Generally they are superficial and within easy reach of the dominant hand.
Small regular patterns of scarring, particularly but not exclusively in Africans, could either be tribal marking or caused by traditional healers. The former are generally on the face. The latter tend to be multiple, symmetrical, and around painful parts of the body. However, some torturers may also produce small symmetrical patterns of scarring.
Bullet wounds are rarely caused during torture but may be caused prior to arrest or during escape (sometimes security forces stage escapes before shooting detainees). Generally, as a bullet enters the body it leaves a small, regular wound, but as it leaves the wound is much larger and more ragged. The appearance depends on the distance from the weapon and its type. If there is an entry wound but no exit wound, it may be appropriate to arrange an X-ray to find out if the bullet is still in the body. A photograph or, if a camera is not available, a drawing of the wounds might be helpful if an expert opinion needs to be sought.
Small wounds to the backs of the hands can be caused by punching or being hit. Wounds on the backs of the forearm could be defence injuries. The inside of the non-dominant forearm is the usual location of self-inflicted wounds. Superficial abrasions or reddening around the wrists could have been caused by tight handcuffs or cords. At a later stage there is often hair loss and there may be hyperpigmentation.
Finger and toe nails can be extracted or crushed during torture, but the late appearance is normally indistinguishable from infection or innocent trauma. Vaccination scars should be noted to ensure they are not attributed to ill-treatment.
Scars on the knees and shins are common in many people, especially those who have played contact sports. Thus lesions in this part of the body can rarely be significant, though they might be consistent with allegations of torture. Additionally, tropical ulcers in childhood can leave large, irregular scars primarily around the lower legs. Lesions on the upper thighs and particularly those inside the thighs are much more important, as they are less likely to be the result of disease or accidental causes.
Keloids are scars that exceed the boundaries of the original wound. They are much more common in some skin types than others. The exact pathogenesis is unclear, but the tendency to them is probably inherited. Those who have a tendency to keloid will probably have several thickened scars on their bodies. Thus such scars are more difficult to attribute to specific allegations of torture.
Hyperpigmentation can follow inflammation in darker skins, irrespective of the cause. It is not seen in pale skins, nor in very dark skins. The hyperpigmentation retains the shape of the original inflammation, which can be important forensically. For example, classic tramline bruising (e.g. parallel lines of bruising) following a blow from a baton or similar object or inflammation from burns can leave distinctive patterns of hyperpigmentation. The increased pigmentation can last for between five and ten years.
Whipping can sometimes leave lines of hyperpigmentation, especially in darker skin. These lesions are rarely confused with striae distensae (see below) commonly referred to as “stretch marks.”
Less regular patterns of hyperpigmentation are seen following abrasions, again particularly in darker skins. Tight ropes or handcuffs may leave marks around the wrists, and marks following rope burns can be seen elsewhere on the body where the individual has been tied up or suspended. These are rarely pathognomonic individually, but the locations and distribution of the marks can support the history of torture.
As hyperpigmentation can follow any inflammation, any other cause of inflammation can cause a similar pattern. For example, lines of increased pigmentation that follow an irritant dermatitis from contact with plant stems can be mistaken for similar lines following whipping (although it is not unknown for victims to be whipped with irritant plant stems as a form of ill-treatment).
Striae distensae (stretch marks) are most common on the abdomen (especially after pregnancy), the lower back, the upper thighs, and around the axillae. They are hypopigmented lines in which the skin might be folded. They must not be confused with scars from whipping. In striae, the skin is intact. They can be evidence of significant weight loss, for example in detention.
Physical evidence of torture is often revealed in a comprehensive examination of the skin. Description of skin lesions should include the following: Localisation (use body diagram): symmetrical, asymmetrical Shape: round, oval, linear, circumferential, etc Size: (use ruler) Colour Surface: scaly, … Continue reading
Many forms of torture can cause nerve damage, including stretching injuries associated with joint damage and physical damage from fractures and incisions. The speed of resolution of nerve damage is relatively predictable, so it may be possible for an expert to determine the approximate time of the original injury from a series of examinations over several months.
‘Palestinian suspension’ can lead to neuropathy of the brachial plexus, especially if it has been prolonged (see Module 4). Sometimes there will be residual signs of this, and if they are still present after two years, they will probably be permanent. ‘Winging’ of the scapula must be looked for (by asking the person to push against a wall and observing the shoulders from behind). Survivors will sometimes describe having suffered weakness of the muscles around the shoulder associated with the loss of certain movements which have recovered progressively over a period of months. If he or she did not have access to information about the clinical processes involved, this description can be very supportive of allegations of torture. Often there is residual pain around the chest and shoulder joint, which may be partially or completely physical or may be psychosomatic.
Peripheral nerve lesions of the hands and feet may also be detected following the prolonged application of restraints (wires, ropes, handcuffs, etc.) to the wrists or ankles. Motor and sensory changes may be transient or, in cases of excessive and prolonged tightening, may be permanent. These lesions are sometimes known as handcuff ‘neuropathies’.
Many forms of torture can cause nerve damage, including stretching injuries associated with joint damage and physical damage from fractures and incisions. The speed of resolution of nerve damage is relatively predictable, so it may be possible for an expert … Continue reading
Where the alleged assault occurred more than a week earlier and there are no signs of bruises or lacerations, there is less immediacy in conducting a pelvic examination. Time can be taken to try to find the most qualified person to document findings and the best environment in which to interview the individual. However, it may still be beneficial to photograph residual lesions properly, if this is possible.
The background should be recorded as described above, then examination and documentation of the general physical findings. In women who have delivered babies before the rape, and particularly in those who have delivered them afterwards, pathognomonic findings are not likely, although an experienced female physician can tell a considerable amount from the demeanour of a woman when she is describing her history. It may take some time before the individual is willing to discuss those aspects of the torture that he or she finds most embarrassing. Similarly, patients may wish to postpone the more intimate parts of the examination to a subsequent consultation, if time and circumstances permit.
Where the alleged assault occurred more than a week earlier and there are no signs of bruises or lacerations, there is less immediacy in conducting a pelvic examination. Time can be taken to try to find the most qualified person … Continue reading
The physical examination is usually the last component of a medical evaluation of an alleged torture victim, after the acquisition of all background information, allegations of abuse, acute and chronic symptoms and disabilities, and after the psychological evaluation, if, in fact, the psychological evaluation is performed by the same clinician who is assessing physical evidence and conducting the physical examination.
As mentioned in Module 2 , it is essential to obtain the individual’s informed consent prior to the physical examination. The physical examination must be conducted by a qualified physician. Whenever possible, the patient should be able to choose the gender of the physician and, where used, interpreter. If the doctor is not the same gender as the patient, a chaperone who is of the same gender as the patient should be used unless the patient objects. The patient must understand that he or she is in control and has the right to limit the examination or to stop at any time (see Module 3 ). A complete physical examination is recommended unless the allegations of torture are limited and there is no history of loss of consciousness or neurological or psychological symptoms that may affect recall of torture allegations. Under such circumstances, a directed examination may be appropriate in which only pertinent positive and negative evidence are pursued on examination.
In this Module, there are many references to specialist referral and further investigations. Unless the patient is in detention, it is important that physicians have access to physical and psychological treatment facilities, so that any identified need can be followed up. In many situations, certain diagnostic test techniques will not be available, and their absence must not invalidate the report.
In cases of alleged recent torture and when the clothes worn during torture are still being worn by the torture survivor, they should be taken for examination without washing, and a fresh set of clothes should be provided. Wherever possible, the examination room should be equipped with sufficient illumination and medical equipment for the examination. Any deficiencies should be noted in the report. The examiner should note all pertinent positive and negative findings, using body diagrams to record the location and nature of all injuries (see anatomical drawings in Appendix 3 of the Istanbul Protocol  to record the location and nature of all injuries). Some forms of torture such as electrical shock or blunt trauma may be initially undetectable, but may be detected during a follow-up examination. Although it will rarely be possible to record photographically lesions of prisoners in custody of their torturers, photography should be a routine part of examinations. If a camera is available, it is always better to take poor quality photographs than to have none. They should be followed up with professional photographs as soon as possible.
The physical examination is usually the last component of a medical evaluation of an alleged torture victim, after the acquisition of all background information, allegations of abuse, acute and chronic symptoms and disabilities, and after the psychological evaluation, if, in … Continue reading