No Sleep for the Wicked: A Study of Sleep Deprivation as a Form of Torture

62 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2021

See all articles by Deena Sharuk

Deena Sharuk

Center for Applied Legal Studies; Georgetown University, Law Center, Students

Date Written: March 24, 2021


It has been twelve years since President Obama signed Executive Order 13491, ending the notorious enhanced interrogation program employed by the intelligence community in the wake of 9/11 and replacing it with the more restrained Human Intelligence Collection methodology in United States Army Field Manual 2-22.3. Implicit within the order and made explicit by the then President’s statements was that at least some of the enhanced interrogation methods amounted to torture. Yet, the language of U.S. federal statute criminalizing torture (18 U.S.C. §§2340 – 2340A) along with the language of the Army Field Manual 2-22.3 remain weak by construction and vulnerable to the same manipulation that led to the torture of detainees during the war on terror.

This article presents some of those weaknesses by demonstrating that the Army Field Manual’s language permits a form of sleep deprivation (restricting detainee sleep to four hours a night for thirty nights with the possibility of extension) that rises to the level of torture. This work applies current medical research on the impact of chronic sleep restriction to the torture analysis.

Part I of this article explores definitions of torture and their international origins. Further, it discusses the systems through which anti-torture legislation is enforced. Part II discusses the post-9/11 evolution of US practices of interrupting and denying detainees opportunities to sleep as interrogational or punitive methods. Part III discusses clinical studies regarding sleep deprivation and its physiological and psychological impact. Part IV analyzes how the current permissible form of sleep deprivation constitutes torture within the domestic legal framework. Finally, Part V makes recommendations for changes to both domestic law and the Army Field Manual’s permitted practice of denying a detainee sleep.

Keywords: Torture, Psychological Torture, Sleep Deprivation, International Humanitarian Law, International Law, Human Rights, Civil and Political Rights, Military Law, Interrogation, Intelligence Collection, National Security

Suggested Citation

Sharuk, Deena, No Sleep for the Wicked: A Study of Sleep Deprivation as a Form of Torture (March 24, 2021). Maryland Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Deena Sharuk (Contact Author)

Center for Applied Legal Studies ( email )

Georgetown University, Law Center, Students ( email )

Washington, DC
United States

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