Fighting torture and impunity on the dental chair

Dental x-ray (courtesy of

Dental x-ray (courtesy of

Increasingly sophisticated methods and unusual practices join the fight against torture and impunity

Plainly speaking, odontologists investigate teeth. They are dentists who specialised in forensic dentistry, putting their expertise at the use of legal enforcement, and, in some cases, in the fight against torture and impunity.

Using x-rays, these special dentists document cases where perpetrators inflict direct damage to the teeth through punches or kicks, extract teeth with pliers or ground them with a file as a form of torture.

For nearly 20 years, odontologists at the University of Copenhagen have been called to action when an alleged torture victim reported that teeth were involved in the torture.

In a study of 33 cases of alleged torture recently published in TORTURE Journal, the odontologists were able to tell that, in all cases, the evidence found was to varying degrees consistent with the alleged claims of torture.

These odontological reports never standalone but are integrated into a full forensic report. When deemed necessary, other examinations are requested as well. These may include dermatologists, urologists, rheumatologists, physiotherapists, ophthalmologists, radiologists, neurologists, etc.

A thorough examination by an experienced psychiatrist acquainted with torture will often be able to diagnose psychological scars even long after the torture has taken place. However, such claims are not easy to discover.

As described by the authors of the odontological study mentioned:

“An oral cavity free of major pathological conditions other than what is reported to be due to torture assaults is easier to evaluate than an oral cavity with signs of severe periodontal and/or cariogenic lesions. It is however crucial to remember that an oral cavity with pathological conditions does not exclude that torture has taken place, but it does make it more difficult to objectively make a judgment as to the origin of the injuries.”

In addition, torture methods are typically selected for maximum psychological and physical impact without leaving marks, and the authorities often detain victims until the majority of the injuries have healed.

Other less obvious challenges pertain to common methods and tools of a dentist. For instance, victims who have been subjected to “submarino” – a method of torture whereby the victim’s head is held under water to just before the point of drowning – may react strongly to the water used in the oral cavity during dental treatment.

Documenting to fight impunity

One of the obstacles in the struggle against torture is insufficient evidence in cases against alleged perpetrators. Most cases do not lead to justice for the torture survivor because the scars on his/her body and mind have not been appropriately documented by doctors or used by lawyers in legal proceedings. Effective investigation and documentation of alleged torture is decisive in proving that torture has taken place, bringing perpetrators to court and ensuring reparation and redress for survivors and their families. Official recognition that torture has taken place serves to restore individual lives and public morale and sends a strong signal to torturers and those authorising the use of torture that this is never acceptable.

Join us in recognising all the medical doctors who everyday join the ranks of torture fighters and help prevent torture worldwide.


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  1. #1 by Jerbert M. Briola on 16/01/2014 - 04:43

    There’s a need to integrate evidence based documentation into the work of human rights CSOs and HRDs to provide evidence of torture and other cases of human rights violations, and this approach will contribute in the prevention of torture through promoting the use of evidence based documentation to facilitate effective investigation and prosecution of torture cases.

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