Tortured terror suspects have mental illnesses, say doctors

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The Independent Online

Eight foreign terror suspects held without trial for nearly three years in British prisons have experienced mental torture and are now suffering from serious psychiatric illnesses, a team of doctors revealed yesterday.

Eight foreign terror suspects held without trial for nearly three years in British prisons have experienced mental torture and are now suffering from serious psychiatric illnesses, a team of doctors revealed yesterday.

Their findings showed that all of the men have self-harmed and considered suicide and one has attempted to take his own life by hanging himself.

The men and three of their wives have been interviewed by a team of 11 eminent consultant psychiatrists and one leading consultant psychologist. Their report concludes that all eight are suffering from "major depressive anxiety disorder and some are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder". The report concludes: "There is evidence from repeated clinical interviews carried out by expert clinicians that indefinite detention is having a damaging impact on detainees' mental health."

The men were all arrested shortly after the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001 under emergency legislation rushed through Parliament. Six of the detainees come from Algeria, one from Tunisia and one from Gaza.

Professor Ian Robbins, a clinical psychologist at St George's Hospital, London, said: "Where they have no control of their own situation this is a sense of mental torture." He added this was particularly so because they had no information about the reasons for their detention and were anxious about contact with their families.

Dr James MacKeith, emeritus consultant forensic psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital NHS Trust, asked: "If you know that this regime is damaging mental health are you then invulnerable to the charge that this is torture?"

The medical team identified an unusual and alarming degree of commonality regarding the symptoms of depression and anxiety from which each of the men were suffering. "A number of detainees as their mood has deteriorated have developed significant psychotic symptoms. These symptoms were not present prior to detention," the report says.

They were particularly concerned about the feelings of suicide experienced by the detainees. "The detainees originate from countries where mental illness is highly stigmatised. In addition, for devout Muslims, there is a direct prohibition against suicide. This is particularly significant given the number who have attempted or are considering suicide."

The report said the men's mental health problems were "unlikely to resolve while they are maintained in their current situation. And given the evidence ... It is highly likely that they will continue to deteriorate while in detention".

The report also found that the men's detention in Belmarsh prison in south London and Woodhill prison near Milton Keynes had had a serious psychiatric impact on their wives. The doctors said all three wives who were interviewed were showing signs of "clinical depression" and one was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The report concludes that their symptoms relate directly to the "incarceration of their husbands and its indefinite nature".

Yesterday their lawyer, Gareth Peirce said four of the men were suffering from what ordinary people would describe as "madness" and had been considered for transfer to Broadmoor at the request of the Home Office.

She said all the detainees
had been arrested and taken straight to prison but never interviewed or questioned by police. None of the men had been charged with any offence, nor had they been told the nature of the evidence against them.

She said: "The basis on which all are held is that the Home Secretary had a suspicion that each was linked to a person or to a group that might be said to be supportive of the aims of al-Qa'ida, that is all. It is impossible for the detainee to disprove there was a basis for such suspicion, in particular where it is based on intelligence which is only considered in secret."

Professor Nigel Eastman, who chaired yesterday's meeting at the Royal College of Psychiatry, said it was not for the experts to question the legislation (Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001). But the findings would necessarily touch upon the mental effects of the legislation and "whether, as a society, we should have laws that override ordinary civil rights".

Dr Sophie Davison, a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Guy's Hospital, London, said all the men seemed to share a sense of "hopelessness and helplessness" which distinguished them from prisoners serving life sentences in British jails. She said that because none of the detainees had a date for release or parole, they felt there was nothing they "could work towards". Dr MacKeith said the men were part of an "especially vulnerable group" who had been traumatised by experiences in their own countries and the nature of their arrest and detention in Britain was "reminiscent" of this kind of trauma.

But yesterday's report concludes that the prison healthcare system is "unable to meet their health needs adequately".

Mrs Peirce described all the men as being "very socially isolated" and recently they had had a number of privileges withdrawn.

The detainees are all classified as category A prisoners and spend between 20 and 24 hours a day inside their cells.