Physician Participation in Human Rights Abuses in Southern Iraq

Chen Reis*, Ameena T. Ahmed, Lynn L. Amowitz, Adam L. Kushner, Maryam Elahi, Vincent Iacopino

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Context: Physicians are known to have participated in human rights abuses in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, but the nature and extent of that participation are not well documented. Objectives: To characterize the nature of physician participation in human rights abuses, identify structural factors that facilitated physician participation, and assess approaches for accountability and for prevention of future physician participation in abuses. Design, Setting, and Participants: A self-administered survey in June and July, 2003, of a convenience sample of 98 physicians and semistructured interviews of hospital directors and physicians in 3 major hospitals with general surgical units in 2 cities in southern Iraq. Main Outcome Measure: Respondent reports of peer and self-participation in human rights abuses in Iraq since 1988. Results: The majority of participants were male (88% [86/98]) and Shi'a Muslims (97% [95/98]). Respondents reported a mean of 6.8 years in practice. A total of 71% of respondents (65/91) reported that torture was a problem to an extreme extent in Iraq since 1988. The proportion of respondents indicating that, since 1988, their physician peers as a group were extremely or quite a bit involved in human rights abuses included 50% (42/83) for nontherapeutic amputation of ears as a form of punishment, 49% (39/ 79) for falsification of medical-legal reports of torture, and 32% (25/78) for falsification of death certificates. Fewer numbers of respondents (range, n =2 to 6) reported participation in abuses themselves. More than half (52% [48/92]) indicated that physicians did not willingly participate in these abuses; 93% (52/71) reported that the Iraqi paramilitary force Fedayeen Saddam was responsible for initiating physician complicity. Fear of harm to oneself or family members was a common explanation for complicity. Respondents reported that physicians who refused to participate in abuses faced consequences including loss of job, imprisonment, torture, and disappearance. Respondents reported on preventive measures that should be undertaken to prevent physician involvement in future abuses, including increasing human rights and ethics education of physicians (99% [79/80]), legal provisions to ensure effective monitoring (97% [73/75]). punitive sanctions for physicians who commit abuses (96% [77/80]), and ensuring the independence of physicians from state authorities (95% [76/80]). Conclusions: Although not generalizable beyond the study participants, the findings of this study suggest that among those surveyed, physician participation in human rights abuses included falsification of medical-legal reports of alleged torture, physical mutilation as a form of punishment, and falsification of death certificates. As Iraq rebuilds, it is essential that the country address these violations and enact measures to prevent physicians from future complicity in human rights abuses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1480-1486
Number of pages7
JournalJAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association
Issue number12
StatePublished - 24 Mar 2004
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'Physician Participation in Human Rights Abuses in Southern Iraq'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this