NEW YORK (Reuters) - Human rights activists seeking a ban on the use of loud music to exert psychological pressure on detainees in U.S. custody are appealing to Bruce Springsteen and Eminem to join their campaign against music as torture.
The campaign called the Zero dB project, standing for zero decibels, was launched at the end of last year by British legal charity Reprieve, which represents dozens of prisoners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It has already signed up British artists including David Gray, Dizzee Rascal and Massive Attack and is now setting its sights on American musicians, said Chloe Davies, a representative of Reprieve and Zero dB.
At a recent "Music and Torture" conference near New York, Davies described the experience of several former detainees including Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian who moved to Britain as a teenager. He was released from Guantanamo in February after nearly seven years in U.S. and Moroccan custody.
During interrogations in Morocco, Mohamed reported being physically tortured, including having his penis repeatedly cut with a scalpel, yet he said what he found hardest was having loud music blasted at him in the dark for days on end.
"After a while, I felt pretty much dead, I didn't feel I existed at all," Davies quoted Mohamed as saying.
Another former detainee, Rhuhel Ahmed, thought initially it was a joke when his captors played rapper Eminem's music, Davies said.
"But after so long, when he started to hallucinate, he said he got why they were doing it," she said, quoting Ahmed as saying, "The music torture stripped away the last sanctuary you had in your mind."
Davies said Ahmed, who was released from Guantanamo in 2004, had been trying to contact Eminem directly to explain what he went through, but "he's not taking Rhuhel's calls."
"The big people like Bruce Springsteen, who we thought would care because he's quite political, we're still trying to reach him," Davies said. "It's just so hard to get through the walls of managers."
Representatives for Eminem and Springsteen did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Davies said Reprieve was also discussing with U.S. lawyers possible legal action that musicians may take against the U.S. government to claim compensation for copyright infringement. She said musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was among those interested in pursuing legal action.
According to Reprieve, music that has been used ranges from heavy metal such as AC/DC, Aerosmith and Metallica to the theme tune from the children's show "Sesame Street."
Detainees also reported the use of songs with overtly American titles, such as Springsteen's "Born in the USA" and Don McLean's "American Pie," or with sexual content, such as Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty."
In one of his first acts after taking office in January, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would close Guantanamo and ordered detainees to be held in conditions that comply with the Geneva Conventions on the humane treatment of prisoners.
Thomas Keenan, director of the Human Rights Project at Bard College, which organized Friday's conference, said it was still important to push for explicit U.S. government recognition that music can amount to torture, and a ban on its use as such.
He said the U.S. Army Field Manual, which lays out how to treat detainees, does not specifically address the use of music, which has a long history of being used to exert psychological pressure by the U.S. military.
The most famous instance was in 1989 when U.S. forces blasted military dictator Manuel Noriega with loud rock music when he was holed up in the Vatican Embassy in Panama.
Keenan said it was hard to define what amounted to torture, but it was vital to address the issue.
"There's a tendency to think 'The world has changed, now we're not doing that any more, it's a thing of the past,'" Keenan told Reuters. "That worries me."
"What's needed is a debate ... a terrible debate on the benefits of torture, with or without music," Keenan said. "We need to repudiate it explicitly."
Editing by Peter Cooney