Sikh A Study of 95 refugees seeking asylum in the UK
by Duncan Forrest FRCS
As a result of the violence in the Punjab described elsewhere, 1,2,3,4,5
there has been an increase in the numbers of Sikhs coming to the
UK from the Punjab to escape harassment. Some of these have come
to the Medical Foundation for treatment or for examination by a
doctor who may then write a medical report to assist their asylum
application. Doctors and other health workers at the Foundation
see a large number of clients who allege torture from over 90 countries.
Those from the Punjab, like clients from many other countries or
districts, show a consistent pattern in their histories, pointing
to a systematic abuse of power on the part of the security forces.
Subjects and method
Between November 1991 and March, 1999, 341 Sikhs attended the Medical
Foundation. Of these, only five were women. This imbalance between
the sexes perhaps indicates a cultural difference: more men than
women arrive in the UK as refugees; perhaps fewer women have been
detained and tortured, though it is reportedly not uncommon for
women to be raped in the home at the time of their male relatives'
I personally interviewed and examined 95 men, who are the subjects
of this chapter. This represents an unknown but certainly small
percentage of all the Sikhs applying for asylum in the UK. All but
three, who were fluent in English, were interviewed with the aid
of Punjabi-speaking interpreters to ensure accurate communication.
Three of them were seen in detention, one each in Bedford Prison,
Pentonville Prison and Haslar Detention Centre. All the others came
to the Medical Foundation in London, one after having been recently
released from Pentonville Prison. All were asylum seekers.
At interview, documents relating to their asylum applications were
available, in all cases the Home Office Political Asylum Questionnaire
or Interview, completed when they first claimed asylum, and in most
cases, also the statement given to their solicitor. Three brought
medical reports or affidavits from India, but none of these were
of sufficient quality to assist the application for asylum.
The examination of clients seeking asylum has some distinctive features.
The need to obtain a complete picture of the detentions means that
every possible detail about the circumstances and methods of interrogation
and the weapons used for beating has to be elicited, but this often
conflicts with the patient's real fear of talking about his experiences.
Consequently, the interviews have to be conducted with extreme patience
and are accordingly often very time-consuming. Occasionally, recalling
certain details causes the subject extreme distress, and on several
occasions these interviews were interrupted by weeping.
Similarly, physical examination is likely to induce painful reminders
of torture and has to be conducted gently. Occasionally the physical
examination could not be carried out fully at the first interview
because it caused undue distress
The 95 men studied were aged from 17 to 58 years when seen (Table
1), but had been aged between 14 and 53 when first arrested (Table
|TABLE 1 -
Age at interview at Medical Foundation
|TABLE 2 -
Age at first detention
The subjects came from a rather
narrow social spectrum. All but eight (who had left school by the
age of 12) were educated at least to secondary level, and nine were
graduates. Thirty nine came from farming families and, after finishing
their education, had worked on the family farm, while six others
had jobs related to farming such as cattle dealing or milk delivery.
Nine were employed in professions, eight were skilled workers, while
15 were still students.
Thirty-eight of them had joined the All India Sikh Students' Federation
(AISSF) while at school or college, and many worked actively for
the organisation. Thirty belonged to other political organisations,
while 27 admitted to no political affiliation at all and claimed
that their detentions were arbitrary, due to mistaken identity or
else were caused by the political activities of relatives or friends.
Three of these claimed they had been arrested simply because they
were strangers in hiding in the locality.
All the men except one claimed that before their first arrest they
were fit and had not suffered from serious disease or injury. One
of them was a full-time athlete (a middle-distance runner), one
was a professional hockey player who had played for India, one had
played volleyball for the Punjab and one was a professional kabbadi
player. Others had played active sports at school or college, one
playing football for his university. Several displayed scars sustained
at sports, in childhood or at work but only one had been disabled
by injury (a leg fractured at kabbadi).
They reported detentions between the years 1978 and July 1998: the
longest interval between release from the last detention and interview
at the Medical Foundation was 8 years 3 months and the shortest
6 months. The number of detentions overnight or longer (i.e. excluding
those of only a few hours) is shown in Table 3.
|TABLE 3 -
Number of Detentions
The man who reported 35 detentions
might not have been believed had he not produced police records
detailing them. Detention was usually for a comparatively short
time on each occasion, ranging from one to 10 days, but totals ranged
from two days to eight months in police custody. Four of the earlier
arrests (in 1984) were by the Indian Army, and the detainees were
held in army barracks, but the rest (since the withdrawal of the
army from the area) were all taken by police and held in police
stations, often in their own village. Eighteen were later transferred
to a special investigation unit of the Central Investigation Agency
(CIA). Of the 95 only 18 were charged and tried; two were convicted.
The large majority were never charged with any offense. In addition
to the detentions listed, several stated that they had many times
been held, questioned and threatened but not detained overnight.
Methods of ill-treatment
All reported severe ill-treatment, usually worst in the first few
days of detention. An indication of the severity of their beating
was the statement by 82 of them that on one or more occasions they
had been beaten unconscious. One man said that he was beaten only
with truncheons, but the others all claimed to have been beaten
with an assortment of weapons, including fists, boots, blows with
lathis (long stout bamboo canes), leather belts with metal buckles,
pattas (leather straps with wooden handles) or rifle butts. One
was beaten with a branch torn from a thorn bush, five with metal
rods and one with a metal chain. In addition, 57 reported being
suspended by the wrists, ankles or hair and then beaten.
A particularly painful method of suspension, which was suffered
by 20 men, is to tie the wrists or arms behind the back and then
suspend the whole body weight by them (Fig.1). Most survivors of
this treatment have permanent damage to the shoulder joints. Eleven
men had their arms twisted behind the back, 22 had their hands trodden
on or hammered and ten were repeatedly thrown against a wall or
onto the floor. Thirty five were given electric shocks, either by
a magneto or from a mains socket. One man was forced to pass urine
into a bucket and another passed urine into an electric fire, giving
painful electric shocks in the penis. One was given shocks while
in a water tank. Fourteen suffered burns, and seven had their nails
pulled out by pliers.
While these methods of torture are found in many countries, there
are some which appear to be peculiar to the Indian police, using
local items of equipment. The lathi is the standard weapon issued
to the Indian police. Being long and stout it delivers punishing
blows which often cause unconsciousness. However, it tends not to
cause an open wound except over a bony point. There is often a metal
knob on the end which in one case was claimed to f, be sharpened
to a point and used to poke the victim painfully.
One method we have not seen practised
in other countries (though it has been reported in neighbouring
Kashmir) is given the nickname of cheera ("tearing" in
Punjabi). It consists of forcing the hips strongly apart, often
to 180°, sometimes repeatedly and at other times continuously
for 30 minutes or more. This is often done with the victim sitting
on the floor with a policeman behind him pulling the head back by
the hair while pressing a knee into the back (Fig.2), but in three
cases was achieved when the victim punishing blows which often cause
unconsciousness. However, it tends not to cause an open wound except
over a bony point. There is often a metal knob on the end which
in one case was claimed to be sharpened to a point and used to poke
the victim painfully. Forty-eight men reported this torture, four
of them stating that they heard and felt the muscles tearing while
others reported that j extensive bruising appeared in their groins
immediately afterwards. Two men, on examination, had severe scarring
in the groin which could have been caused only by excessive stretching
of the skin.
Another method, alleged by 69 men, involves the use of a thick wooden
roller. The police sometimes have a thick log of wood or a steel
tube kept for the purpose, but they often use a ghotna, the t pestle
about four feet long and four inches in diameter which is used locally
for grinding corn or spices. One man reported being beaten on the
back with a ghotna, one had the ghotna placed between the thighs
and then the ankles tied forcibly together, 19 had the ghotna placed
behind the knees and then the legs flexed over it (Fig.3), but the
commonest method, applied in 63 cases, was for the ghotna to be
rolled slowly down the thighs or calves with one or more of the
heaviest policemen standing on it (Fig.4). Fourteen men suffered
both of the last two methods. Usually the roller was said to be
smooth and caused no break in the skin, though the pain was unbearable.
One man, however, stated that the surface was rough and cut the
skin, while another said that a square-section table leg was used.
Sometimes the roller was made 1 of stone or metal and clearly made
specially for the purpose. One had "Welcome" written on
it and another was labelled "75kg".
Much of the abuse took place during interrogation sessions, but
police also beat detainees randomly at other times. Twenty-seven
men reported having been beaten late at night when the officers
were drunk. Some forms of torture which are common in other countries
were rarely found, emphasising the fact that torture methods are
a geographically selective phenomenon. Whereas in Sri Lanka, for
example, burning with cigarettes is extremely common, in this group
it was seen only twice. Burns were inflicted with a hot iron rod
in eight cases, an electric iron in one, hot candle wax in four,
caustic liquid in one and, in one case, the victim was suspended
head down over an electric fire. Similarly, sexual abuse, usual
in Algeria or the former Zaire,6 for example, was uncommon in this
group though five men had hot chillies or petrol pushed into the
Sites of Injury
The majority were beaten principally on the back, the legs or
the buttocks, while 20 said they had been beaten all over and 20
had been beaten over the head. Nine had been beaten about the ears
resulting in bleeding and deafness. Beating the soles of the feet
was used on 37 victims. It is an extremely painful method widely
used in the Middle East, where it is known as falaka or falanga.
It does not appear to have a special name in India. Six men described
having their ankles fixed in a wooden frame (khaath or sakanga)
so that their soles could be beaten. Forty-two men said that their
heads had been forcibly pulled back by the hair while a knee was
held in the back. One man had chilli powder thrown into the eyes,
one had salt rubbed in the eyes and one other lost an eye as a result
of a blow from a sharp implement.
Forty-nine men reported being threatened with further punishment,
death or harm to family. Six experienced mock executions, and others
were told that the police could easily make it appear that the detainee
had been shot in a gun battle or when attempting to escape ("false
encounter"). Twenty suffered extreme humiliation, often with
removal of the five sacred objects (the five Ks) which baptised
Sikhs wear at all times. One particularly devout man had cigarette
smoke and ash blown in his face, alcohol poured into his mouth and
threats of having his beard and hair cut off. He remembered this
as worse than his (very severe) physical abuse.
Most men were released without charge, usually after representations
by the village elders (the panchayat), a politician or lawyer, but
in 44 cases, only after the payment of a large bribe. One man estimated
that, after his five detentions, his family had paid out 4 lakh
of rupees, equivalent to about £7,400. Five men were forced
to sign statements before release, exonerating the police from blame
for injury. On release, 61 were unable to walk. 1 Three were thrown
out of a police car close to their village. In several cases the
relatives had to hire a taxi to take the victim home from the police
station and one man was twice sent home in
I a rickshaw. Twenty-two were hospitalised but some were refused
admission to a government hospital on the grounds that they were
"police cases". Most stayed in bed at home for up to two
months and were treated by a private doctor or received traditional
Most of the Medical Foundation examinations were conducted long
after the last detention, the shortest interval being six months
and the longest eight years (Table 4), but nevertheless, all subjects
had physical symptoms and signs which they attributed to the ill-treatment
they had received and which they claimed had not been present prior
|TABLE 4 -
Interval from last detention to Interview
The most common complaints were
of back pain and pain on walking,, principally but not only, by
those who had suffered beating on the soles of the feet, cheera
of the hips and/or crushing by the ghotna. Permanent damage to the
shoulder girdle was common among those who had suffered suspension,
especially with the arms tied behind the back, or arm-twisting or
both. Eight men had visual disturbance that they attributed to blows
on the head with rifle butts. The man who had had chilli powder
thrown in the eyes still had severe lachrymation, while the man
who had lost an eye through injury with a sharp implement had an
unsatisfactory prosthesis which caused pain. Eight had deafness
or discharging ears attributed to blows. Four had sensory loss and
one had vascular impairment in the lower limbs attributed to application
of the ghotna.
Psychological damage was obvious in all cases, with elements of
post-traumatic stress disorder, such as loss of concentration (65
cases), memory loss (34), confusion (11), intrusive thoughts (37),
flashbacks (eight), panic attacks (20), and especially, recurrent
nightmares reproducing events experienced during detention (56).
Thirteen men claimed to be depressed (though only two were receiving
treatment for clinical depression), and five confessed to suicidal
thoughts (strongly condemned by their religion). On the other hand
15 stated that they were strongly supported during detention and
afterwards by prayer and religious observance.
The first problem in interviewing alleged torture victims is the
great difficulty many have in talking of their experiences. Some
have never before seen a doctor who seemed sympathetic or who was
not the employee of the authorities. Immigration offices, HM prisons
or detention centres are not the most reassuring environments for
an interview. Confidence is much more easily gained in a friendly
and welcoming environment. The importance of a knowledgeable and
sympathetic interpreter cannot be overemphasised.
A great deal of time needs to be spent in slowly eliciting the account
of detention and torture. Many subjects experience great distress
at the recollection, and in several of the present cases the interview
had to be temporarily halted while the man wept bitterly. Many had
not previously described the most painful, and perhaps humiliating,
events to a living soul, not even their wives. In almost every case,
relevant material that did not appear in the original interview
record or questionnaire was elicited by patient questioning.
With one exception all these men gave a history of abuse with a
variety of techniques that show a pattern peculiar to the region,
partly due to the use of materials easily available to the police,
such as the lathi and the ghotna. Several factors are evident:
|Severe physical and psychological
ill-treatment is routinely employed during interrogation in
police stations and interrogation centres.
|Clearly, torture is at least
a semi-official policy since several detainees affirmed that
the torture occurred during questioning by senior officers,
some of whom were named by the victim.
|Ill-treatment was clearly aimed
at obtaining information about dissident groups.
|An additional purpose seems
to be to terrorise the supposedly disaffected population.
|Forty-two subjects stated that
they were released without charge only after a substantial bribe
was paid. It has been alleged that this is sometimes the sole
motive for the repeated arrest of the sons of well-to-do parents.
|The beating was often very
severe, as shown by the fact that 82 of the 95 reported having
lost consciousness on one or more occasions during interrogation.
The visible scars months or years after
the detentions were often few. This could be explained partly by
the passage of time, but more particularly by the fact that much
of the physical injury was superficial. Many men described how they
were covered in bruises that faded and disappeared after a few weeks,
but had few open wounds that would leave scars. Others described
how their arms or legs had been wrapped in towels before suspension,
which could only have been with the intention of avoiding abrasion
The police seemed to be aware of the need to avoid gross visible
injury in detainees who may have to be presented in court, hence
the common finding that suspension had left no visible scars round
wrists or ankles. Several men advanced the information voluntarily
that soft cotton ropes or turban cloth were used, or ordinary rope
was bound with cotton cloths when suspending detainees, clearly
with the specific purpose of avoiding permanent scarring to the
wrists or ankles. One man described having his back covered with
a wet towel before the police beat him. However, though the police
are cautious about causing visible scarring, they often do not avoid
more insidious damage. A recent paper from neighbouring Kashmir,?
reports 10 cases of kidney failure due to products of muscle breakdown
escaping into the bloodstream following police beating. In addition
to official interrogations, 26 detainees reported beating, apparently
random, by drunken police, usually late at night. There is often
clear evidence of long-lasting damage
to the joints or muscles of the shoulders, hips and knees as a result
of the techniques of suspension and crushing used by the Indian
In taking a history from torture victims, it is sometimes difficult
to decide if the description is accurate and credible. In any medical
interview it is, of course, imperative to make an estimate of the
patient's credibility. An important feature is that the history
obtained at a medical examination often brings out features that
have not been mentioned in previous statements. This should not
cause surprise, because the doctor seeking specific information
(while attempting to avoid leading questions) about the methods
of torture and their effects, elicits descriptions which have not
been asked for by solicitors or immigration officers. Many studies
have documented the fact that when giving a medical history, a patient
will often not reveal quite important facts until a second or subsequent
interview.8,9 It is hardly to be expected that a man who has suffered
horrific treatment will be able to recall and reproduce every detail
at once to a stranger. One who has suffered many detentions will
naturally have difficulty in recalling accurately what happened
on each separate occasion. Indeed, it might be suspicious if he
It is often alleged that asylum seekers embroider or invent their
experiences. If this were so, one would expect them to attribute
every scar or deformity to their torture. In fact 70 of the 95 men
in the present study pointed out scars that they said were due to
childhood injury or accidents at work and were often at pains to
dismiss them as unimportant. Only two of the present group gave
the impression that they were embroidering the truth, and consequently
no report was written for them. The subjects normally gave a strong
impression of transparent honesty and, if anything, belittled their
injuries. The longer the interviews went on and the more details
of their ill-treatment came to light, the more credible their stories
sounded. In addition, some gave details so bizarre that they could
hardly have been invented. One man recounted how the police, before
beating him with a patta, showed him the flat wooden handle upon
which was written "Welcome", and at the end of the session,
showed him the other side with the legend "See you again".
Another told how the police brought in an electrical apparatus,
evidently new, which they experimented with, at first achieving
only gentle shocks, but after further testing, were able to deliver
graduated shocks of greater severity.
A common finding of those who see a variety of torture victims is
that asylum seekers from a particular region tend to produce very
similar histories of torture. This is sometimes taken to indicate
that they are colluding with one another to fabricate a story they
hope will further their cases. In the present study it appears that
there is a pattern of abuse in a region and that police have a limited
repertoire of techniques, some of which are traditional and some
developed using locally available materials. Indeed, the only subjects
whose credibility was in doubt were those who described conditions
of detention and methods of torture which had not been heard before.
The descriptions of ill-treatment given by all the other men closely
corresponded to descriptions previously collected in the Punjab
and described independently by Dr Pettigrew in her book (see Chapter
1), and by Amnesty International.4 By contrast, other methods of
torture found in many countries around the world, such as burning
with cigarettes or sexual abuse, were found only occasionally in
In all but one of the men there was physical evidence such as scars
or damage to joints and muscles to support their allegations. In
no case was there categorical proof of torture, though in 32 cases
there were scars that appeared highly suggestive that they had been
caused as described and unlike any accidental wound. Concrete proof,
often expected by solicitors or asylum officials, is almost never
available unless, as is seldom the case, the victim can be examined
within a few days or weeks after the injury. Even apart from the
fact that there is often conscious effort on the part of interrogators
to avoid any permanent visible evidence, there is no way after a
lapse of years to prove that a scar or deformity could have been
caused only in the manner and at the time alleged. Whereas in many
countries that practise torture, interrogators are not restrained
by any attempt to hide it, in India the possibility that the victim
may have to appear in court makes them go to some lengths to avoid
causing severe external injury.
Nevertheless, the ghotna and cheera, routinely used by the Indian
police, do leave long-standing changes in the joints and muscles
which are characteristic and quite unlike signs caused by natural
disease or other forms of trauma.
X-rays or other imaging, biochemical tests or muscle biopsy may
supplement clinical examination but are unlikely to provide proof
that cannot be elicited by physical examination. Consequently, in
the present group, it was not considered justified to subject anxious
subjects to an additional burden.
Psychological changes, though very real, were even less specific
than the physical. All the subjects showed clearly that they were
suffering from the long-term effects of trauma, but in none could
it be causally related with any certainty to their history of torture.
It is inevitable that at least some of the psychological damage
must be due to the harmful effects of exile, separation from family,
social deprivation and uncertainty about the future.
It must be admitted that this group of asylum seekers who came to
the Medical Foundation for medical reports are a highly selected
sample of all the refugees who find their way to the UK: they all
allege that they have suffered torture; their lawyers have decided
that documentation of their alleged torture is relevant to their
asylum claim and that the torture has left some residual evidence;
their application for a medical report was accepted by the Medical
Foundation; and in all but two cases the examining doctor decided
that their history and examination gave sufficient support to their
allegation of torture to justify the submission of a medical report.
The total number of refugees arriving in the UK is in turn a tiny
minority of all those have suffered gross police harassment. The
vast majority remain in their own country. Dr Pettigrew's study
suggests that many of those detained by the police in the Punjab,
often on trumped-up charges, "disappear" or are killed
in "false encounters". Only those with considerable financial
means are able to obtain release from detention (the family of one
of my patients had to sell a plot of land in order to pay the bribe
for the release of their son), and it may take several months to
find the money to pay an agent for false documents and transport
to the country of refuge. It is no surprise, therefore, that all
the men included in this study came from families of substantial
farming, business or professional stock. None of them showed evidence
of having come to this country as "economic migrants".
They all had well-established lifestyles before their peace was
shattered by police harassment and persecution. Many of them were
politically active or had given food, shelter or assistance to rebel
groups and thus were at risk of detention, but a significant number
had no political or criminal history and were caught up by accident
or by a friend or relative giving their name under torture. Some
were arrested simply for being young Sikhs. One young man who had
moved to another part of India for safety was once more arrested,
simply, he claimed, for being a stranger and therefore suspect.
Two others had similar experiences while visiting a distant village.
There are many reasons why an applicant, having arrived in the UK,
may not present his case for asylum to the best advantage. The initial
interview or questionnaire is the key document which is used throughout
the asylum process, and any subsequent
amendment or addition is viewed with mistrust. It is often conducted
at the port of entry, when the applicant has just arrived in the
UK, often still suffering physically and psychologically from recent
experiences of detention, torture and flight into exile. The victim
of torture may suffer from confusion or loss of memory because of
the trauma he has suffered, as exhibited by 45 men in the present
study. He often suffers from cultural inhibitions that induce deep
shame for any transgression he may have committed or felt he has
committed against the mores of the community. This is particularly
true of sexual attacks which victims from many countries never reveal
even to their spouse. The agent who has sold him false documents,
wishing to cover his own tracks, may have instructed his client
to destroy all documents before landing and warned him not to mention
torture or imprisonment, one reason being that the UK authorities
might take this as a sign that he is a criminal and therefore undesirable.
He may have deep distrust of the interviewer or interpreter, having
learnt by bitter experience that it is safest to reveal as little
as possible to those in authority. With all these inhibitory factors,
is it any wonder that many initial interviews produce errors, omissions
and apparent discrepancies?
The uncomfortable conclusion is unavoidable - that at least some
asylum applicants are being unjustly labelled as "economic
migrants", "bogus refugees" or "abusive claimants"
and refused asylum to which, by any humane or legal standards, they
are fully entitled. They are in danger of being sent back to an
environment they rightly fear, of summary detention, torture, "disappearance"
or execution in a "false encounter".