Israeli high court decision enables widespread torture of Palestinian detainees

When human rights workers, lawyers and doctors get a chance to speak with Palestinian detainees about their treatment in Israeli prisons, the standard response is ‘ādi, meaning “as usual.” After a little prodding, sometimes they will get the details of what exactly is “usual.” (See Bana Shoughry-Badarne’s  “Torture in Israel – A Question of Getting Away With It.”)

One man tells of being violently beaten for 80 hours while being told his mother was dying.

Another man was allowed to sleep for two hours every three days for a total of 40 days, while interrogators shouted directly into his ears. (Examples from Shoughry-Badarne’s article.)

When the brutal “interrogation” is exhausted, officers may send the prisoners to a foul-smelling cell, where mold lines the walls and there is a hole in the floor to use as a toilet.  

Usually — that is 70-90 percent of the time — the detained men, women and children are not allowed to speak to anyone, including a lawyer, until they have “confessed.”

And once the Shin Bet (also known as the General Security Services, GSS, or Shabak) have a confession — no matter what induced it — there is no chance for a lawyer to help the prisoner regain his freedom.

Torture, or “moderate physical pressure” was supposed to be made illegal by a 1999 Israeli high court decision. However, in the decision, the court made the exception to the rule for those Palestinians deemed to be a “ticking bomb;” in other words, they withheld information that could help save lives.

Shin Bet impunity “absolute”

But since 2000, 700 complaints of torture at the hands of the Shin Bet have been submitted to the state prosecutors’ office and not a single case has been criminally charged, prosecuted or convicted. When turning back each unresolved complaint, the state prosecutor’s office either denies the factuality of the allegations of physical abuse or invokes the “necessity defense” — that is, the detainee fell under the “ticking bomb” scenario.

“The GSS’s impunity is absolute,” wrote Bana Shoughry-Badarne, an attorney and the Legal Director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, in Adalah’s publication, “On Torture.”

That is why a handful of human rights organizations, including Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and PCATI submitted two petitions last year to the Israeli high court to demand that the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, carry out a criminal investigation into every allegation of torture by the Shin Bet. Subjects of Israel’s interrogations were also signatories to the petition.

Court rejects petition

Last week the high court ruled against the petition.

In the ruling, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein stated, “The Shin Bet of course is neither above the law nor immune to criticism. But it is clear there is a place for relevant screening, out of consideration for the Shin Bet’s work and without feigning innocence, also for fear of false complaints for political and ideological reasons.”

According to Judge Rubinstein’s ruling, the state prosecutor’s preliminary examination into complaints is sufficient to determine whether a criminal investigation should be pursued.

It seems that if Judge Rubinstein is so concerned about false claims and profligate complaints he would rule in favor of Adalah’s currently pending petition that demands the Shin Bet be required to videotape and audio record its interrogations, a provision that the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) requires “as a means to prevent ill treatment.”

However, since 2008, the Knesset has exempted the Shin Bet from recording interrogations of individuals it classifies as “security detainees.”

In response to CAT’s concern of the suspension, the State chalked up its lack of recording equipment to “budgetary limitations” and said the exemption would only last until December 2010.

Yet on 4 July 2012, the Knesset extended the temporary amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law of 2002 that requires the videotaping and audio recording of all interrogations of individuals suspected of crimes punishable of 10 years or more.  

Criminals have, no doubt, always yearned for the right that Israel has reified — to investigate and prosecute themselves. But in the interests of truth, justice and societal protection, they are denied this luxury. That is, unless they’re powerful states.




"Torture, or “moderate physical pressure” was supposed to be made illegal by a 1999 Israeli high court decision."

I am no expert, but I recall this quite well. The court explicitly excluded "torture", while permitting "moderate physical pressure not amounting to torture". As usual, they play with semantics. But, torture -- no. Moderate physical (or psychological) pressure not amounting to torture -- yes. All political trials are based on confessions extracted by physical and psychological pressure, or on unidentified witnesses, whose identities need to be protected. Any international jurist who has taken a cursory look at this system has concluded that it does not meet international standards.

Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.