Blog: Deborah Popowski
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April 13, 2016
When Deborah Alejandra Popowski, J.D.’08, was just beginning her studies at Harvard Law School (HLS), she learned a powerful lesson about the value and import of the law.
An American attorney representing a Guantanamo detainee spoke at an HLS event. The lawyer told of her client, a Saudi citizen in his early 20s, and of the regimen of inhuman treatment that he endured at the hands of U.S. military forces. For Popowski, the lawyer’s testimony brought home the human dimension of torture.
“Everybody in law school was talking about concepts and the rule of law regarding torture,” Popowski said. “That was the first time that I had ever heard somebody talking about people.”
Ever since, she has tried to follow that example and tend the people.
Since 2009, when Popowski began working as a fellow at the HLS International Human Rights Clinic, she has advocated for torture survivors as part of a movement to seek accountability for U.S. torture through both state and international courts.
Popowski, who became an HLS clinical instructor in 2011, has focused on the role that psychologists played in the U.S. torture program authorized by the Bush administration and implemented as part of its “war on terror.”
As is widely known, psychologists helped design the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which included water-boarding, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and religious and sexual humiliation of Muslim men and boys detained by U.S. intelligence and military agencies. Psychologists also participated in interrogations as advisers.
Popowski recalled an internal military report that documented an interrogation session in which a detainee was repeatedly slammed onto the floor and ended up spitting up blood, with a loose tooth, bruises, and rib pain.
“The psychiatrist who was present didn’t say, ‘You shouldn’t be slamming him at all.’ He recommended the slamming,” said Popowski. His “protection” of the man, she said, was to tell the interrogator to move chairs out of the way before slamming him again.
Examining the controversial participation of psychologists in the U.S. torture program, Popowski will take part in a panel on Wednesday with David Luban of Georgetown University Law Center.
“The official narrative was that psychologists were there to keep interrogations safe and ethical,” Popowski said. “But they were there not to protect detainees; they were there to calibrate harm.”
Widespread public criticism of the American Psychological Association (APA) for endorsing the U.S. program led the group last summer to prohibit its members from taking part in interrogations by military or intelligence services. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon announced the withdrawal of psychologists from Guantanamo Bay.
For Popowski, both decisions are reasons to celebrate because they represent a landmark in the movement for reform and prevention within the association, whose call is to heal and do no harm.
An independent report last year commissioned by the APA concluded that the association had colluded with the Department of Defense inappropriately by aligning its ethics policies with military directives to protect the role of psychologists during interrogations they had reason to know were abusive. According to Popowski, this collusion enabled torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in violation of human rights and humanitarian law.
Although the report validated Popowski’s position, she still worries about what she calls the U.S. government’s unwillingness to hold accountable the military and civilian officials who were responsible for the program. She represented a group of Ohio residents — including psychologists, lawyers, a minister, and a veteran — who filed a complaint with that state’s licensing board against Dr. Larry James for his role in Guantanamo. Other advocates presented evidence relating to Dr. James and other psychologists, alleging their involvement in torture, to licensing boards in Texas, New York, Louisiana, and Alabama.
In no case did a state board bring formal charges. Popowski said they offered “opaque, implausible, or seemingly pretextual justifications for their decisions” and “seemed to turn a blind eye” to credible evidence. All this, she said, highlights the lack of accountability for those who designed and implemented policies condoning torture. So for Popowski, the struggle is not over.
In her HLS classes and clinic, Popowski strives to teach students the effects of the legal practice on people’s lives, an aspect that she believes is somewhat overlooked in law schools across the country. As part of the International Human Rights Clinic, she took students to Geneva, where they, along with Trudy Bond, a psychologist from Toledo, Ohio, presented the UN Committee Against Torture with the 2014 shadow report that they helped write. The committee concluded that the U.S. government should investigate senior officials, lawyers and other civilians responsible for their role in the program.
Students also participated in litigation and in other advocacy work that accompanied the legal action.
“We want lawyers and advocates who are compassionate and empathetic people,” she said. “They have to be able to understand the tremendous impact their policies, rules, and actions can have on people. It’s an ethical question students have to wrestle with — what responsibilities they have as lawyers.”
Popowski feels optimistic about the future.
A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Popowski was born in Argentina during a military dictatorship. She likes to tell her students that in 1999, when she was writing her bachelor’s thesis on collective memory in Argentina, prospects for justice in cases of torture and human rights violations committed by the military junta were dim. Nearly a decade later, when she came back to HLS, Argentina had become an example of accountability for crimes of torture and forced disappearance.
“That’s the way I like to think about this work,” she said. “You have to be ready to challenge your concept of what’s possible and have a long-term imagination.”
August 24, 2015
Posted by Deborah Popowski
This post was originally published on Just Security
The image of torture in US popular culture is an intimate one: a government agent and a suspect in a dark cell, usually alone. But the reality of our state-sanctioned torture program is that it took a village, working in broad daylight, to pull it off.
This summer, all eyes are on the American Psychological Association, as they should be. An independent investigation commissioned by the APA found that the organization had, as David Luban describes here, engaged “in a decade of duplicity to permit its members to participate in abusive interrogations while seeming to forbid it.” The report, lead-authored by former prosecutor David Hoffman, tells a tale of wholesale corruption and cooptation. Among its explosive findings is that APA officials refused to act on ethics complaints against military and CIA psychologists so as to shield them from sanction.
But the APA was not the only institution asked to investigate these matters. State licensing boards in Ohio, New York, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama also received credible, well-documented complaints against implicated psychologists, including many of the same subjects of the improperly dismissed APA complaints. As lawyer and advisor for Dr. Trudy Bond and other courageous complainants in many of these cases, I witnessed how the licensing boards, like the APA, stonewalled and refused to bring formal charges, offering opaque, implausible, or seemingly pretextual justifications for their decisions.
According to the Hoffman report, ethics director Stephen Behnke told investigators that the duty to protect the public fell not on the APA, but on the state licensing boards. The truth is that the responsibility is shared — and so is their failure.
Licensing boards are legally mandated to protect people from the unsafe practice of psychology. This includes patients, all people with whom psychologists work, and the broader public. Yet, presented with evidence that their licensees had participated in or enabled torture, these state boards seemed to turn a blind eye. To truly understand how a profession dedicated to healing came to sanction brutality, we need a full investigation into how and why these boards dismissed misconduct complaints against psychologists James Mitchell, John Leso, Larry James, and Diane Zierhoffer. Did the state boards handle these complaints properly and in good faith, or did they, like the APA, strain their reading of the law to reach conclusions that would not restrict the government’s interrogation program — even if it included torture and cruelty? To what extent did they rely on compromised APA ethics policies and the now-discredited officials responsible for them?
August 20, 2015
Posted by Deborah Popowski
This post was originally published on the Human Rights at Home Blog
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released on August 5th a report denouncing the United States government for unlawfully detaining men in Guantánamo in violation of their human rights and offering recommendations for how the Obama administration should hasten the prison’s closure. It calls for the immediate release of all detainees who will not be charged or tried, and for the use of federal courts instead of military commissions to prosecute those not released.
Personal Integrity and Access to Justice
The 136-page report, “Towards the Closure of Guantánamo,” provides the most recent holistic and independent account of conditions in the prison. The Commission expresses particular concerns about indefinite detention; the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; a discriminatory detention regime; limited or no access to judicial protection; lack of due process; and lack of an adequate defense.
The Commission calls on the US to end the inhumane practice of force-feeding detainees and to ensure that all men receive “adequate medical, psychiatric and psychological care” that respects principles of confidentiality, patient autonomy, and informed consent.
The report also takes on the conditions that contribute to these grave health problems, including prolonged isolation, incommunicado detention, and indefinite detention. On the latter, it notes having “received specialized information on the severe and lasting physiological and psychological damage caused by the detainees’ high degree of uncertainty over whether they will be released and when; or whether they will see their family members again.” It adds that the “continuing state of suffering and uncertainty creates grave consequences such as stress, fear, depression, and anxiety, and affects the central nervous system as well as the cardiovascular and immunological systems” and concludes that the continued, indefinite detention of men in Guantánamo violates their right to humane treatment.
The Commission’s analysis of personal integrity violations underscores that the fulfillment of this right requires providing detainees with meaningful avenues to monitor, challenge, and remedy their treatment and conditions. To this end, it asks the US government to declassify evidence of torture and ill-treatment, disclose conditions in Camp 7, ensure accessible and effective judicial review, and grant access to an independent monitoring body to investigate detention conditions. Additionally, it urges compliance with the UN Committee Against Torture’s recommendations to investigate all abuse allegations, prosecute those responsible, and ensure effective redress for victims of torture and ill-treatment.
An entire chapter is devoted to detailed analysis of the judicial remedies available to detainees post-Boumediene, which the Commission concludes are neither adequate nor effective, citing concerns with the operation of presumptions and burdens of proof. While the report credits the US with positive changes made via the Military Commissions Act of 2009, it ultimately finds that the military commissions system fails to meet the government’s human rights obligations. Its main areas of concern include their “independence and impartiality …, the uncertainty regarding the application of the US Constitution; respect for the right of equality before the law, to confrontation and to a speedy trial; respect for the principle of legality, and the retroactive prosecution of crimes.”
“A Prison for Foreign Muslim Men”
The Commission notes that Guantánamo’s exceptional regime is rendered even more problematic because of its exclusive application to Muslim men of non-U.S. nationalities, “which creates the appearance that it is targeting individuals based on their nationality, ethnicity, and religion.” Reports of religious-related abuse also played a role in the Commission’s personal integrity analysis. The report’s conclusions and recommendations remind the US government of its obligations to respect detainees’ rights to freedom of conscience and religion, and specify that these include guaranteeing access both to communal prayer and a Muslim chaplain.
The Commission calls on the US to allow transfers for trial, emergency medical treatment, and also for release and settlement in the cases of cleared men who cannot return to their home countries and are unwilling or unable to settle elsewhere. To that end, it asks Congress to repeal the National Defense Authorization Act provisions that restrict transfers of Guantánamo detainees to the United States, and urges the executive to interpret the NDAA requirements “in a flexible manner” so as to meet its rights obligations. The report also highlights other necessary measures within the executive’s power, such as expediting the Periodic Review process, stepping up diplomatic negotiations, accelerating transfers to countries of origin or third countries, and ensuring that Yemeni detainees cases receive individualized reviews.
Finally, it calls upon other member states to accept detainees for resettlement. Given the Commission’s influence in the region, advocates are hopeful that this report, with its detailed and unequivocal critique of the regime’s unlawfulness, will significantly help efforts to resettle some of the cleared men in Latin America.
August 7, 2015
Posted by Deborah Popowski
The American Psychological Association Council of Representatives passed a resolution today that forbids psychologists from participating in national security interrogations and aligns its policies with international law. This is a watershed moment for the movement against U.S. torture, and we owe tremendous gratitude to our partners at the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and the many others who brought about this remarkable turnaround from the APA.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that, in keeping with Principle A (Beneficence and Nonmaleficence) of the Ethics Code to “take care to do no harm,” not conduct, supervise, be in the presence of, or otherwise assist any national security interrogations working on their behalf, nor advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such an interrogation enforcement interrogations or domestic detention settings where detainees are afforded all of the protections of the United States Constitution, including the 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination (“Miranda” rights) and 6th Amendment rights to “effective assistance” of legal counsel.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that … APA shall send official correspondence to the appropriate officers of the U.S. government, including the President, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, CIA Director, and Congress, to inform them that APA has adopted policy changes to expand its human rights protections to safeguard detainees in national security settings against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
1) The first of these communications will be sent as soon as possible after this amended policy is passed, and will state – It is a violation of APA policy for psychologists to conduct, supervise, be in the presence of, or otherwise assist any individual national security interrogation, nor may a psychologist advise on conditions of confinement insofar as those might facilitate such an interrogation. Furthermore, based on current reports of the UN Committee Against Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, it is also a violation of APA policy for psychologists to work at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, “black sites,” vessels in international waters, or sites where detainees are interrogated under foreign jurisdiction “unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights” or providing treatment to military personnel. To protect these psychologists from the consequences of violating their obligations under the APA Ethics Code, APA requests that psychologists be withdrawn from any role in individual national security interrogations or conditions of confinement that might facilitate such an interrogation. Furthermore, APA requests that psychologists working at prohibited sites, as described above, be offered deployment elsewhere.
Full text of the resolution here.
Stay tuned for more coverage next week.
July 31, 2015
Posted by Deborah Popowski
Renowned psychologist Ken Pope has written an excellent essay on the Hoffman Report and its conclusions that the American Psychological Association enabled torture. Pope is a former APA Ethics Chair who resigned from the APA in 2008, out of disagreement with the organization’s post-9/11 ethics stances.
The essay asks us to reflect on what the Hoffman Report has to do with each of us – what we chose to see (and not see) then, and what we choose to do now. Here is an excerpt in which he focuses scrutiny on the various other institutions charged with safeguarding ethics, including state licensing boards:
…the Hoffman Report documents a wide range of improper behaviors involving conflicts of interest, improper handling of ethics complaints to protect psychologists, issuing misleading statements that hid true motives, to name but a few, as well as activities related to torture and violations of human rights. Now that the Hoffman Report has awakened our profession, if none of the diverse improper behaviors violates any ethical standard in the APA Ethics Code, that may tell us something. If any of the diverse improper behaviors violates any standard in APA’s code, and neither the APA Ethics Committee, nor any state psychological association or state psychology licensing board that has adopted APA’s ethics code as enforceable, takes action sua sponte (on its own initiative) or in response to a formal complaint, that may tell us something. These and other measurable signs of meaningful change (e.g., whether APA and its elected officers representing the membership publish formal corrections or retractions of factually incorrect statements appearing in journals or press releases that denied, discounted, or dismissed reports of improper behavior, just as researchers fulfill their ethical responsibility to correct the formal record) can hold a mirror up to both our own individual and our psychological community’s ability and willingness to meet the challenge of change.
The full essay is available here.
Note: Psychologists for Social Responsibility will host a Town Hall on the Hoffman report this coming Thursday, August 3, in Toronto. Full schedule here.
July 23, 2015
Posted by Mindy Roseman
In the last few weeks, the public’s attention has been drawn to the relationship between the American Psychological Association’s (APA) leadership and US military and intelligence operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The New York Times first revealed the findings of the APA’s commissioned inquiry into its own activities. The Hoffman report, as this investigation is known, found that APA officials colluded with government officials to enable psychologists to participate in torture.
APA Ethics Director Stephen Behnke was fired shortly before the the report was released to the public. He has since retained as counsel former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who issued a statement rejecting the investigation’s findings. Behnke is a lawyer-psychologist and former instructor in Harvard Medical School’s department of psychiatry.
Earlier this week, The Boston Globe reported on the Harvard ties of two former APA presidents implicated in the report: Gerald Koocher, a psychologist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, and Ronald Levant, who taught at Harvard and Boston University.
Most recently, Russ Newman, whose actions as chief of the APA’s practice directorate also came under scrutiny in the Hoffman report, resigned as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Alliant International in San Diego.
That there is renewed focus on this issue and finally some recognition of responsibility is testament to the persistent and incisive efforts of a national grassroots movement to hold psychologists accountable for their complicity in torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, in violation of international and US domestic law and codes of ethics. For years, our colleague, Deborah Popowski, Clinical Instructor, has played a critical role in that movement, alongside her clients, Trudy Bond, Josie Setzler, Michael Reese and Colin Bossen. Read more about their work together here and here.
April 4, 2015
“Globalizing Ferguson: Racialized Policing and Internationalized Resistance”
12:00- 1:30 p.m.
Ames Courtroom, Austin Hall
Harvard Law School
Please join us for a forum that brings together community organizers, attorneys, and academics to discuss the international dimension of racialized policing, violence and structural injustice. What elements of these problems are transnational? Is there a role for transnational solidarity in fighting oppression? Can international human rights bodies provide vehicles of resistance? What are the possibilities and limitations of law and how can lawyers be good allies? Panelists will draw on their recent experiences in taking these struggles to the UN and the inter-American system, and on their involvement in solidarity delegations to Palestine and Brazil.
Panelists are Patrisse Marie Cullors, organizer, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, member of #DDPalestine delegation #BlackLivesMatter; Fernando Ribeiro Delgado, Clinical instructor, International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School; Justin Hansford – law professor, member of the Ferguson to Geneva Delegation; Meena Jagannath, Community Justice Project; Balakrishnan Rajagopal, MIT Program on Human Rights & Justice; Asha Ransby-Sporn, We Charge Genocide; Sherika Shaw, organizer at Dream Defenders, member of #DDPalestine, Brazil delegations. Julia Dehm, of Institute for Law and Global Policy, and Deborah Popowski, of the Human Rights Program, will moderate.
After the discussion, there will be a limited enrollment workshop from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. The workshop will provide a space for experienced activists to engage us in discussions on strategy and opportunities for future advocacy and activism in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. What kind of concrete projects and tasks can law students and other members of our community work on to help advance the objectives of this movement? Together we will explore the possibilities and potential limitations of legal advocacy in this struggle for social change.
Note: The workshop is currently full, but if you’d like to be put on the wait list in the event of cancellations, please register here.
This event is being co-sponsored by La Alianza, Institute for Global Law & Policy, Dean of Students, Black Law Students Association, National Lawyers Guild – HLS Chapter, Law and International Development Society, South Asian Law Students Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Muslim Law Students Association, Advocates for Education, Advocates for Human Rights, African Law Association, Asia Law Society, Law and Social Change, Lambda Legal, Prison Legal Assistance Project, Criminal Justice Institute, UNBOUND, Students for Inclusion, Harvard Ferguson Action Committee. This event is sponsored in part by the Milbank Student Conference.
March 10, 2015
Tomorrow, March 11: Criminal Justice & Policing After Events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, & Elsewhere: Next Steps
“Criminal Justice & Policing After Events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, & Elsewhere: Next Steps”
12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Milstein West AB
Join small group roundtable discussions with faculty experts on concrete proposals. Facilitators: Jennifer Chacon, Andrew Crespo, Fernando Delgado, Phil Heymann, Benjamin Levin, Charles Ogletree, Deborah Popowski, Sonja Starr, Carol Steiker, Jeannie Suk and Alex Whiting.
This event will involve the participation of the HLS Ferguson Action Committee.
February 11, 2015
February 12, 2014
“The Role of Lawyers in Enabling and Justifying Torture”
7:30 – 9:00 p.m.
Dinner will be served
Please join Alex Whiting, Deborah Popowski, and Wells Dixon as they discuss the role of lawyers in authorizing the post-9/11 US torture program. The panelists will speak about their experiences litigating torture cases, explore ways in which individuals implicated in torture can be held accountable, and discuss possible institutional reforms in legal pedagogy and curriculum at HLS aimed at producing more morally-conscious and ethical leaders.
November 4, 2013
Clinic Contributes to Independent Task Force Report on Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the ‘War on Terror’
Posted by Cara Solomon
An independent panel of military, ethics, medical, public health, and legal experts released a report today, “Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the ‘War on Terror,'” examining how doctors and psychologists, as well as U.S. military officials and intelligence agencies, were involved in the cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees.
Deborah Popowski, Clinical Instructor at the Human Rights Program and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, co-authored a chapter in the report, “Health Professional Accountability for Acts of Torture Through State Licensing and Discipline,” along with Kate Nicholson, Shuenn (Patrick) Ho, and Pooja Nair.
The chapter begins:
“No health professionals employed by or contracted with military and intelligence agencies have been held accountable for any acts of torture and other forms of mistreatment of post-9/11 detainees, either by those agencies or by civilian disciplinary boards. The costs of non-enforcement are great: non-enforcement undermines professional standards, erodes public trust, and undercuts deterrence of future misconduct. Lack of consistent enforcement also compromises protection of health professionals who face institutional pressure to violate their ethical obligations. By contrast, attention to accountability signals to licensees and those who employ them that the profession and institutions designed to ensure adherence to ethical obligations take violations seriously. Moreover, it empowers health professionals to resist demands by commanders to engage in acts that violate their professional responsibilities and to report abuse when they believe it has occurred.”
In addition to being a contributor, Deborah is also a member of the 19-member task force that brought together a range of perspectives to produce the report. The Institute on Medicine as a Profession along with the Open Society Foundations supported the initiative.
The Human Rights Program has been working for several years on the issue of accountability for health professionals involved in torture. Learn more about our focus on professional misconduct complaints here.
More coverage of the report:
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