“Torture is the great black hole, the subject that cannot be talked about.” With a solid speech, Pau Pérez Sales (Girona, 1963) knows the importance of opening gaps in that silence. He is the director of the Sira Center, which provides multidisciplinary care for victims of ill-treatment and torture. This psychiatrist was one of the participants in the recent Sanfermines 78: Gogoan, in a debate on the Transition and human rights. Pérez Sales praises the initiatives to reverse “amnesia processes” on certain “episodes of political violence.” He believes that the Transition generated a series of “gaps due to all the unspoken issues”, which still “have implications”. One of them is torture, where he observes “a special silence, because it is a taboo subject, denied to the majority by most political parties.” With a low reception in general in the State. He asks to get out of the “logic of political calculation where the victims are simply one more element of the equation”, and calls for a commitment that may exist in certain institutions of the Basque Country or Navarra” which, in his opinion, “ they speak from a human reading”.
He comments that outside the CAV and Navarra, the echo of studies against torture is scarce. A thermometer of how we are.
-The problem is that the word torture has a semantic meaning that is often associated with extreme physical violence, the use of electricity, things that provoke existential or primary horror, that generate rejection, and then, what the person needs to believe is that it could not happen here or it cannot happen here.
That is addressed in the documentary ‘Karpeta urdinak’, by Ander Iriarte. There is widespread faith in the system.
–There is a need to believe that the system is fair and is managed with ethical principles. And there is one thing that deep down everyone knows, which are the sewers of the State, which existed, exist and will continue to exist, because they are structures that are latent, and that the moment the State feels immediately threatened, these structures are reactivated and put into operation. We can talk about the October 1 referendum in Catalonia, when dynamics and forms of operation of the State Security Bodies suddenly began to appear that were very reminiscent of the Basque Country. And this happens in the Spanish State, in France, in Germany, in the theoretically advanced democracies. A part of the exercise of violence through illegitimate means that is always in the chamber when someone decides that it has to be used.
Going back to your earlier argument…
– A large part of the problem is that imaginary that associates torture with extreme violence. And it is clear that this is not, even in the worst times, the most frequent torture. In the documentation that we have made of cases in the Basque Country, of course there are people who have had electrical torture, but the percentages are very low. What is difficult to understand is that most torture is psychological. Equal or more devastating than physical torture.
Which disproves prejudices.
-Exact. In physics, one is thinking of breaking or bending the person’s will through physical pain. But many times this is one more way of the different ones that exist to provoke the psychological bankruptcy of the person. The methods of torture that leave the most serious and important sequels, that cause this breakdown the most, are on the one hand fear, threats, terror, the expectations that the person may have of harm to himself or to loved ones. In a study on the Basque Country, the main reason people broke up and agreed to sign was when they threatened their family. Something apparently light like some threats, instead many people say that it was the breaking point. Or what we call the attack of secondary emotions, humiliation, shame, guilt. Attacks on dignity, identity, attacks on basic elements of the person, which degrade it in a deep experience of indignity that remains recorded for a long time. Nudity, teasing… may also seem like minor forms of torture, but people say that physical pain is soon forgotten, but that shame or humiliation stays with you forever. Or guilt, when as a result of all this you end up giving a name or contravening your moral principles. For example, someone in a cell who hears the police arrive, and they open the next cell…
And he feels visceral relief.
-Sure, but then leaves a fault. Another example: most people explain that maybe in four days they slept five hours. And studies show the need for continuous, uninterrupted, restful sleep. The majority of false confessions in detention, according to studies in England and the United States, are associated with not letting the person sleep and low blood sugar levels due to not feeding them. That is psychological torture, it is weakening the person, not allowing him to think clearly, leading him to a situation of emotional exhaustion. We see in the work with the victims a large number of people who went through situations like these, but who do not recognize themselves as such, because they were not hit as much, or they were hit less than the other, and who feel embarrassed to be considered that way. When 5,000 victims are recognized in the Basque Country, in the IVAC report, we are probably facing a very significant underestimation, because there are people who are not going to recognize themselves as such, despite the fact that they have suffered damage. And you have to make their environment, the gang, the family, understand the horror that these victims have gone through.
They talked about the Transition, an era elevated to the category of cornerstone, where at the same time ETA’s ‘growing up’ took place. Does that make many sectors avoid any critical reading?
-Here there is a fight of moral legitimacy. Obviously victims are those of ETA and those of the State Security Forces. They are just as much victims as others, but what each of the political parties is trying to do is capitalize on the ethical or moral value of the victim and make political use of it; manipulate or use that kind of emotionality. That means creating a black and white, good guys and bad guys approach, in which the other victims are lying or exaggerating. It is a polarizing and Manichaean discourse. Within it, it is obvious that for the majority of the State, aligning itself with the victims of ETA and considering that anyone on the opposite shore lies, exaggerates or obeys a manual, is the most profitable in terms of political capitalization of suffering. When in fact what we people who work on these issues know is that in order to move towards a future in which violence is part of the past, we must begin by recognizing and legitimizing the suffering of all victims. And those of torture do not ask for economic compensation, but simply for a truth to be recognized, for there to be apologies from the State and for it to be recognized that there were excesses and the use of illegitimate methods.
In ‘Karpeta urdinak’ he reflects on the chain of command, from the perpetrators in the dungeon to those who generate guidelines.
-In Cal viva, José Amedo’s memoir, he says that Felipe González was perfectly aware of everything they were doing, and that not a single thread was moved without the President of the Government knowing about it. And that is said by someone who was responsible for the GAL. A system in which someone can torture on their own would be bad. What the system is not interested in or cannot allow is the existence of psychopaths acting on their own. In the very few times that there is no impunity, the officer or the person who rolls up his sleeves is the one who bears the responsibility, when in reality he is simply a pawn in a strategy. Torture is always systemic. In all cases. And it is never a matter of bad apples or people acting on their own. Unfortunately, there is a design, a strategy, training and training schools.
‘There is’, in the present.
– Yes, in the present. The national mechanism for the prevention of torture speaks of 52 convictions for torture and about 520 for crimes against the moral integrity of people detained in Spain in twelve years.
It’s on billboard Argentina, 1985. Cinema continues to be a tool for human rights.
-I want to see her. There have been several films in the Argentine context that have had a truly cathartic social effect. The truths are built in very long processes in which you have to slowly break that expectation that the horrible thing could not happen. There is a process of social maturation that allows these truths to be assimilated and break the processes of collective denial or looking the other way that exist naturally in societies. I think that these types of films, plays or books are very important, because they are doing this job. These films that reach commercial circles and spread among population groups beyond people already convinced of human rights, are very important.
In Pamplona, in addition to the activist Jorge del Cura, he debated with Mikel Soto, from the Network of Tortured People of Navarra.
-It is a very important path. I direct a magazine, Torture Journal, a medical and psychiatric magazine on the rehabilitation of victims, which is published in Copenhagen, and I asked Mikel for an article collecting this experience, because I think it is practically unique worldwide. That a group of victims who are capable of organizing themselves to collect testimonies, take a census, go see people in their homes and try to launch a process that comes from below, from the base. This is of extraordinary value. Many times the victims are seen from a mere vulnerability, groped and used politically, or by academic studies. And here we have people who position themselves as actors and say: we are going to tell what happened, and seek institutional or academic support, but we are the ones who want to tell you the story. This is very relevant, because it is an element of empowerment, and because it gives a bit of a feeling that they tried to take control over their lives but they are regaining it. At that round table, Mikel said that he realized after many years that he had not talked about this. And he affirmed that after listening to me everything was turned upside down inside him, because they are things that are very difficult to put into words. That is why it is important to be able to tell the emotions, even if you know that deep down nobody can understand you. Because whoever has not lived this cannot understand it. But it is important to try. I found it tremendously honest on Mikel’s part, and very revealing of the experience of many victims, who 20 or 25 years later actually tiptoe past and have not been able to tell. These processes, from the confidence of being in front of other victims, have a very important function in terms of reparation, of giving voice and that this is recognized. he