Report: Family members used to pressure Palestinians in Israeli detention

Palestinians hold pictures of their jailed relatives during a rally marking the Palestinian Prisoners Day, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, 16 April 2008. (Haytham Othman/MaanImages)

The following is the introduction of a report by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel entitled “ ‘Family Matters’: Using Family Members to Pressure Detainees.”

“They said that if I confessed to everything they wanted, they would release my wife, and that she was in the isolation cell because of me.”

“The interrogator told me that my father was in detention (afterwards I discovered that he had lied), and threatened that they would also arrest my grandmother if I didn’t confess.”

These and similar testimonies of detainees interrogated by the Israel Security Agency (GSS, also known as the Shin Bet or Shabak) during the past year indicate a phenomenon whose gravity must not be minimized: the use of a detainee’s family to “break” him. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) is determined to combat and eliminate this immoral practice of “psychological torture.”

Psychological torture does not usually receive the same degree of public attention as physical torture. The Israeli public generally associates torture with the terms “moderate physical pressure,” “shaking,” “bending the detainee’s back,” and “painful shackling,” and relatively little attention is given to psychological torture.

There is, in fact, no clear difference between the two types of torture. All physical torture entails psychological suffering, and the fear of the unknown or of renewed use of physical means is just as likely to cause suffering no less than the immediate physical suffering inflicted by physical means. Some interrogation means intentionally combine physical and psychological torture. For example, the GSS deprives detainees of sleep (which is essentially psychological pain), among other means, by shackling them in painful positions (primarily physical pain).

It is undisputed that means of torture that cause psychological suffering can constitute torture just as means that cause physical suffering do. The accepted definition of torture is stated in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Israel is party. The Convention defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…” [1]

More general human rights conventions, which do not define torture, also have been interpreted as prohibiting psychological torture. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Israel is a signatory, specifies in Article 7 that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” [2] The UN Human Rights Committee, a body of experts appointed to oversee implementation of this Covenant, held in a general comment on this article:

“The prohibition in Article 7 relates not only to acts that cause physical pain but also to acts that cause mental suffering to the victim.” [3]

Both torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (hereafter referred to as ill-treatment) are forbidden under any circumstances, including times of emergency and war. [4] In the landmark judgment given by Israel’s High Court of Justice on the General Security Service’s (the GSS’s predecessor) interrogation methods, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak related to international law’s sweeping prohibition on both torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment: “These prohibitions are “absolute.” There are no exceptions to them and there is no room for balancing.” [5]

The question of whether a particular means of interrogation causes “severe” suffering — i.e., constitutes torture [6] — or “only” involves “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” is irrelevant in terms of the state’s obligations: it must prohibit both torture and ill-treatment in every situation, without exception.

The drafters of the Convention intentionally refrained from including a list of acts that constitute torture or ill-treatment or from specifying a requisite degree of suffering which, if exceeded, constitutes a breach of the prohibition against torture or ill-treatment. Two of the drafters of the Convention did, however, bring the following example to illustrate the meaning of the concept of torture:

If the victim is made to believe that he will be killed or that reprisals will be taken against his wife or his children if he does not cooperate. [The act concerned can only be described as torture if the pain or suffering inflicted is severe” [7]]

Examples of threats to harm first-degree relatives of the victim, not to mention actually harming them, are found repeatedly in the legal literature and in case law on the meaning of psychological torture. The cases in which this phenomenon occurs around the world are common to regimes that terrorize their own citizens. In Guatemala, during the civil war at the beginning of the 1990s, a woman was kidnapped in the street on the way to collect her son, a toddler. In her interrogation, which focused on the activities of her former spouse and father of her son, she was led to believe that her son had been kidnapped and was in the hands of her interrogators. [8]

In Surinam, during the military rule in the 1980s, detainees were threatened that their wives, mothers and other family members would be harmed. [9] In Turkey in the mid-1990s, a Turkish citizen was detained shortly after her Kurdish husband had been detained under mysterious circumstances. During the woman’s interrogation, she was told that her sons were being detained and tortured. [10] In all of these cases, as in others,11 international courts considered such use of a detainee’s family as a kind of psychological torture, and prohibited it pursuant to the conventions discussed above.

It seems, therefore, that no further explanation is required to prove that this phenomenon constitutes psychological torture. The interrogator treads on one of the detainee’s most sensitive nerves: his deep concern for his closest relatives and his willingness to make great sacrifices for them, often his own life. The fear that his family will be harmed as a result of his behavior is liable to create suffering no less serious than that caused by painful binding, sleep deprivation, or severe physical violence. [12] The sages of the Talmud noted that “Any ache is preferable to heartache,” [13] and the “heartache” — the deep psychological distress — that is the focus of this report is among the cruelest. It should be noted that the causes of this heartache are deeply rooted in the cultural and religious commandments of the interrogees, in the form of the basic obligations and customs of caring for one’s close relatives, honoring one’s parents, and giving them unbounded love.

The state’s use of a detainee’s family in psychological torture exploits the individual’s sense of familial obligation in order to harm the family members and break up the family, this in breach of the state’s obligation to protect the family unit.

International law, particularly human rights law, recognizes the unique nature of the family and its importance both to society and to each and every person. The family is the fundamental social unit, the strong base that provides family members with primary protection from the world, solidarity, care, support, and mutual responsibility.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Following its lead, international instruments specify additional provisions that protect the family. Israeli law, too, recognizes the unique nature of the family unit and the rules related to it, and the need to protect it. Harming family members is deemed especially grave in that it violates the obligation of loyalty and responsibility toward family members.

The state and its agents take advantage of the deep emotional and psychological ties between family members to crush the individual’s willpower and the family unit itself. Forcing the interrogee to make the cruel choice between confession, truth, or self-interest and harming his own family is exploited in the most bitter way, in total contradiction to the legislator’s intent and to the fundamental values of the Israeli and international legal systems, which are committed to protecting the family unit.

This report presents six cases of the use of family members against interrogees suspected of security offenses. Some of the cases involve the humiliation of innocent relatives, and using them to inflict psychological suffering on the detainee. The more extreme cases involve torture of the interrogee, who becomes a victim to cruel manipulation along with the degrading use of his innocent family members.

Besides being flagrant violations of the prohibition on torture and ill-treatment in international law, most of the cases in this report describe violations of a fundamental principle of every proper legal system: that an innocent person may not be detained for the sole purpose of making him a strategic tool in the interrogation of another person. A prerequisite for detaining a person is the existence of a reasonable suspicion that he has committed an offense. A person’s familial relation to a detainee cannot lawfully be grounds for detention, particularly when the latter detention is nothing more than a scheme to assist in the original detainee’s interrogation. Such an act constitutes the forced recruitment of an individual in a battle against his relative. Not only does it turn a human being into a means, it turns him into a means aimed at achieving a goal counter to his deepest desires. It infringes the individual’s dignity as an autonomous being, his sensibilities as a family member, and his liberty as an innocent person.

It should be emphasized that, even in cases where the person’s right to liberty is not infringed, and there is a legal pretext for detaining the family member which calls his innocence into question, there are still no grounds for forcing him to serve as a means of pressure on someone dear to him: a person’s autonomy and his familial sensibilities are protected values that are granted him also when he is legally detained.

All the cases discussed below pertain to the exploitation of a spouse or parent. This is especially relevant given the considerable weight in Israeli law, and elsewhere, to the protection of relations between parent and children and between spouses. For example, the Evidence Law states that a person is fit to testify in a criminal trial against his sibling, but not against his spouse, parent, or child. [14]

In each case, the detainees were interrogated under harsh conditions. They were held in solitary confinement in small cells with electric light on round the clock, were interrogated continuously for many hours, unable to move, with their hands bound behind them to the back of their chair. Some of the detainees were interrogated with the use of extreme physical violence, as described in their testimonies presented below. Harsh conditions of imprisonment and interrogation, especially violent methods of interrogation, are highly relevant to the subject of this report. These conditions and acts intensify the psychological pressure illegally inflicted on the interrogee by inextricably linking the outcome of his interrogation to the fate of his family members. Under such circumstances, the very threat to arrest his relative is immediately and justifiably understood by the interrogee as a threat to severely harm that family member. When an interrogee is presented with the potential scenario, which at times actually occurs, that his relatives are at the detention center under the same conditions as his own, this situation is sufficient to make him fear for their fate. All this, together with the harsh physical conditions under which the interrogee is being held, from which he would give anything to be extricated, increases the temptation to capitulate to manipulation that links the fate of his interrogation to the fate of his relatives, with the enormous emotional suffering it entails.

In each of the cases, the interrogee is isolated from the outside world and prevented by GSS orders from meeting with his attorney. In some of the cases, the interrogee is denied the right to meet with an attorney for long periods — up to 55 days in one case. [15] The protracted isolation of the detainee can itself function as psychological ill-treatment. [16] Preventing the interrogee from meeting with an attorney breaches the detainee’s fundamental right to receive legal counsel. Legal counsel would substantially neutralize the effect of the threats against the family. It would also enable the attorney to file a complaint of ill-treatment to the court in “real time” and to work to release the family members from their false imprisonment. The prevention orders leave the detainee helpless and expose him to physical and psychological torture and ill-treatment of the type addressed in this report.

The cases examined in this report occurred in 2007 and in early 2008. Lawyers on behalf of PCATI learned of these detainees by chance in the course of their work representing detainees denied meetings with attorneys and during their visits to detainees under GSS interrogation. The cases involving exploitation of family members were discovered when PCATI lawyers took testimony from these detainees. It is not contended that these cases form a representative sample of GSS interrogations, nor is it possible to estimate the number of cases in which family members have been exploited as a means of pressuring an interrogee. [17] However, the cases presented in the report strongly suggest that exploiting family members and using them to psychologically abuse the detainee is a common method of interrogation.

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[1] Article 1(1) of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984 and came into force in 1987. Israel ratified the Convention in 1991.
[2] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and came into force in 1976. Israel ratified the Covenant in 1991.
[3] Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 20: Replaces General Comment No. 7 concerning prohibition of torture and cruel treatment or punishment (Art. 7), 10 March 1992, para. 5.
[4] Article 4 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits a state from derogating from the prohibition against torture and degrading treatment, even in “time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation”; Article 2 of the Convention against Torture stipulates that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency,” and no “order from a superior officer or a public authority” may be invoked as a justification of torture.
[5] HCJ 5100/94, Public Committee Against Torture in Israel v Government of Israel, PD 54 (4), 817, 836.
[6] The intentional use by public servants of interrogation means that cause suffering already meets the other elements of the definition of torture, that is, the element of intent, of purpose (including intimidation and extraction of information or a confession), and of involvement of public officials.
[7] H. J. Burges and H. Danelius., The United Nations Convention against Torture — A Handbook on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1988), p. 118.
[8] Judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Maritza Urrutia v. Guatemala (Inter-Am. Ct. H.R., (Ser. C) No. 103), 27 November 2003. The court ruled that a threat to kill a member of the detainee’s family if she did not cooperate, and showing the detainee pictures and correspondence of the family, constitutes, in addition to the use of other methods, a violation of Article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture.
[9] Judgment of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Gobardhan v. Surinam, Res. No 1/85 Case No 9265 (1 July 1985), para. 6. The Commission held that the threats made to interrogees constitute psychological torture, which is prohibited under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948.
[10] Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Akkoc v. Turkey, (Application nos. 22947/93 and 22948/ 93), 10 October 2000, ECHR 2000-X, para. 25, 116, 117. The court emphasized the gravity of the threats and determined that they created intense fear and anxiety in the interrogee, and in light of the severity and cruelty of the suffering caused her, that the threats amounted to torture.
[11] See, also, the two following cases:
The UN Human Rights Committee, in Miguel Angel Estrella v. Uruguay, Communication No. 74/1980 (17 July 1980), UN Doc. Supp. No. 40 (A/38/40) at 150 (1983), even considered threats of violence against friends of the complainant as sufficiently serious to constitute psychological torture.
The European Commission of Human Rights, in Denmark v. Greece, App. Nos. 3321, 2233, 3344/67. 12 Y.B. Eur. Com.Hum. Rts (1969), included threats to harm family members of the interrogee in the category of psychological torture. For a comprehensive review of the judgments and literature on this topic, see Irfan Nezirolu, “A Comparative Analysis of Mental and Psychological Suffering as Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment under International Human Rights Treaty Law,” Essex Human Rights Review, Vol. 4 No. 1, February 2007, p. 16; INTERIGHTS, “Manual on the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” 2007, 2.2.1 ,p. 8.
[12] A comprehensive study of 279 torture survivors around the world, conducted by three psychiatrists and published in March 2007, found that psychological torture is no less severe than physical torture in terms of the psychological damage caused to the interrogee. See Metin Baolu, Maria Livanou & Cvetana Crnobari, “Torture vs. Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment: Is the Distinction Real or Apparent?” 64 Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 277 (2007).
[13] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 11a.
[14] Evidence Law [New Version] 1971, sections 2, 3, 4.
[15] Jasser Abu ‘Omar was arrested on 7 December 2006. Pursuant to order of the Kishon Military Court, he was not permitted to meet with his lawyer until 31 January 2007.
16 “Prolonged isolation and deprivation of communication are in themselves cruel and inhuman treatment, harmful to the psychological and moral integrity of the person and a violation of the right of any detainee to respect for his inherent dignity as a human being.” Valesquez Rodriguez Case, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Judgment, 29 July 1988.
[17] In many dozens of other affidavits taken from GSS interrogees during this period by lawyers from PCATI, the detainees complained of threats to arrest relatives, to harm them, or to destroy their homes. These threats were not carried out.