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Physical Evidence of Torture

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.