There are several purposes which torture can serve but the broad objectives include the maintenance of social control, the defence of ruling regimes and the suppression and punishment of political opponents and suspected criminals. In practice this means that torture is frequently used in interrogations to force confessions. In some police and security forces, torutre is a short-cut to “effective” policing through which officers can quickly gain convictions via confessions. However, torture is also used for other purposes: to disable political or social activists by intimidation or the infliction of serious trauma, to ensure compliance and collaboration from people so that they will infiltrate and/or testify agtainst suspected “enemies” of the government. Torture and other forms of violence can be perpetrated to assist ethnic cleansing, the expulsion of one or more ethnic groups from the territory claimed by another. The social views or political stance or ideology of people who have thus been brutally tortured are immaterial to those perpetrating the torture. More generally, torture can be used to induce in a population a sense of terror. And of course, wher toture has become institutionalized or where police can act with complete impunity, the threshold at which torture is seen as an appropriate tool can decrease. Moreover, torture can occur where there is no obvious purpose. There have been numerous examples recorded of individuals being arrested and tortured solely because they were, by chance, present in a location where alleged criminals or political targets of the authorities were present. No amount of torture would make them reveal information they do not have (though of course they could be induced to confess to some illegal activity in which they have not participated).
The power of torture to evoke confessions as well as to induce fear in the person under threat of torture has led some law enforcement officials to use it for their own ends. In some countries, police or prison officers have extorted money from detainees by the threat of, or actual, infliction of torture. And prison guards threatened with having their already low wages furhter cut if a prisoner escapes, may not histitate to use violent forms of repression against prisoners.
The targets of torture are a mix of those who have long been recognized as potential victims–foremost, political or military opponents of the ruling power–as well as others who are under-recognized as targets of torture: alleged criminals, the poor and marginalized, and ethnic minorities (both in their country or origin and as asylum-seekers). Some victim groups do not fit into traditional understandings of political torture: sexual minorities, religious groups, women and children (particularly vulnerable when used as a weapon against male family members), civilians caught in civil wars or in conflicts across borders and “accidental” victims–those who are arrested because they have the misfortune to be in a place where security agents are carrying out arrests.