Rights groups challenge Israeli secret service impunity

Activists protest the detention of Omar Said and Ameer Makhoul, May 2010.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

For Omar Said, the time he spent in the custody of Israeli secret service agents — and the emotional ordeal that accompanied his interrogation and detention — won’t soon be forgotten.

“You can’t imagine how many hours and how many questions. [The secret service agents] were all the time with me. It’s like your shadow, all the time with you,” Said told The Electronic Intifada. “This measure is very, very heavy and very, very effective. Many of the people can be convinced [to confess to anything] just to get some rest.”

A pharmacologist and expert in traditional Arab medicine based in the Galilee region, Said was arrested by agents from Israel’s General Security Service (GSS, also known as the Shin Bet or Shabak, according to its Hebrew acronym) on 24 April 2010 at the King Hussein/Allenby border crossing with Jordan.

Shortly after being stopped at the border, Said explained that Shabak agents searched his car, home and office and seized files and computers, including those of his children. He later learned that he was being accused of having contact with a foreign agent — a man with connections to the Lebanese resistance movement Hizballah — while on vacation in Egypt. He was also accused of endangering the security of the State of Israel.

“They took me to [Shabak prison in] Petach Tikva [for investigation]. They put me in a very small cell. It’s very dirty and it was cold all the time because they used air conditioning. The light was on all the time,” said Said, who is also active in the Balad party, a Palestinian political party in Israel.

After spending several days on virtually no sleep and under continued interrogation, Said explained that he was transferred to another Shabak-run prison facility in Ashkelon. There, the interrogations continued.

“They [held] me 18 or 17 days without meeting my lawyer. I felt it was like two years when you are there alone, you feel isolated and [like] you will be a victim [because they can do anything they want]. This is a very, very, very dangerous situation,” Said said.

Around the time that Said was arrested, Haifa-based Palestinian political activist Ameer Makhoul was also detained by Shabak and interrogated under the same pretenses: that he had made contact with an agent of Hizballah and was a danger to Israeli security.

Makhoul signed a plea deal in his case late last year, and was sentenced to nine years in prison in January 2011. Said, for his part, was charged with “servicing an illegal organization” after agreeing to a plea bargain and sentenced to seven months in prison.

He was released in September 2010.

“[Shabak] can do whatever they want but I think they are also very, very careful,” Said told The Electronic Intifada. “They can choose their targets. There is logic behind this. It’s not just to take people and put them in prison. They want to send a message to the people.”

Challenging inhuman and degrading conditions

Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority rights in Israel, and Nadi al-Aseer, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, filed a pre-petition on 11 May demanding an end to detention in prison facilities run by Shabak.

Presented to the Israeli Attorney General, the Minister of Internal Security and the Head of the Israeli Prison Service (IPS), the pre-petition argued that holding detainees in Shabak-run facilities — the Ashkelon, Jalameh, Petach Tikva and Russian Compound facilities — should stop due to “the inhuman and degrading conditions to which detainees are subjected in them” (“Adalah and Nadi al-Aseer Demand an End to the Detention of Palestinian Detainees in Shabak Facilities Due to Inhuman and Degrading Conditions,” 12 May 2011).

“The pre-petition is targeting the physical conditions of the Shabak interrogation cells,” Adalah attorney Abeer Baker, who presented the pre-petition on behalf of Adalah, told The Electronic Intifada.

“What we asked first is to close these cells as long as the conditions there are not improved. The second issue we said [is] that all of the physical conditions of the detainees should be equal, whether they are security or criminal detainees. We asked a demand for external supervision of these cells,” she added.

Baker explained that after Shabak agents interrogate security detainees — detainees who are suspected of being a security threat to the State of Israel — the detainees are sent into very narrow cells, similar to cells used for solitary confinement, in an attempt to break their spirit.

According to Baker, the Shabak facilities are also not inspected or supervised by external bodies. Human rights organizations examine the physical conditions of prisons of every other Israeli prison in the country, but not the Shabak facilities, thereby making them exempt from outside scrutiny and accountability, Baker said.

“These bad conditions are made on purpose in order to affect the personality of the detainee and make him confess and break him, break his spirit,” Baker said.

“We are talking about the dignity of detainees, a process that should be monitored by law,” Baker added. “We are not talking about something which is not embodied in law. We are talking about the right for dignity. These are the basic constitutional rights of every detainee.”

In the case of detainees and prisoners, Article 10 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Regarding Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza who are also often detained and interrogated by Shabak agents inside Israel, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”

“They violate international law which demands that putting people under custody must maintain dignity. Especially people from occupied territories, you have the Geneva Conventions which demands this also,” Baker said.

“By interrogating these people in these facilities, they are facilitating the process to criminalize the Palestinian people to put them behind bars. It’s political.”

Shabak impunity cemented in Israeli law

In 1987, the Landau Commission — an Israeli governmental commission charged with examining the interrogation methods used by the Israeli General Security Services — found that the continued use of “physical force” in interrogations was acceptable.

Twelve years later, in 1999, the Israeli high court finally prohibited torture of any kind in Israel, and outlawed certain interrogation techniques. In “ticking time bomb” situations, however, the court found that the use of physical force could be justified.

This caveat, otherwise known as “the necessity defense,” has been used to justify the use of physical force and torture by Shabak interrogators since the high court’s ruling. While meant only for use in extreme cases, human rights groups have criticized the “ticking time bomb” defense for its widespread and inappropriate use.

The GSS argues that its agents should be exempt from criminal prosecution during these types of situations due to Article 34K of Israel’s Penal Code, which states that “no person shall bear criminal responsibility for an act that was immediately necessary in order to save his own or another person’s life, freedom, bodily welfare or property from a real danger of severe injury, due to the conditions prevalent when the act was committed, there being no alternative but to commit the act.”

According to a December 2009 report released by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), Shabak interrogators “are protected by layers of concealment, the withholding of information, and immunity shielding them like the layers of an onion.”

Titled “Accountability Denied: The Absence of Investigation and Punishment of Torture in Israel,” the PCATI report found that the levels of protection include the fact that Shabak employees are not required to identify themselves, that Shabak interrogations are exempt from any video or audio documentation, and that detainees are denied from speaking with an attorney or anyone else from the “outside world” during most of the interrogation process (“Accountability Denied,” December 2009 [PDF]).

A “facade of investigations into complaints of torture and abuse” also points to the impunity with which Shabak (GSS) interrogators operate, the report found.

“Complaints of torture by GSS interrogators submitted to the Attorney General are forwarded for inspection by the Officer in Charge of GSS Interrogee Complaints (OCGIC), a function filled by a GSS agent. Thus complaints of torture during GSS interrogations are examined by a GSS employee who does not constitute an independent or impartial investigator,” the report stated.

As such, more than 600 complaints have been submitted between 2001 and 2008 about mistreatment by Shabak interrogators, but not a single complaint has developed into a criminal investigation, according to the PCATI report.

In late March of this year, various nongovernmental organizations — including Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and PCATI — petitioned the Israeli high court to investigate the mistreatment and torture of detainees at the hands of Shabak interrogators.

According to PCATI, this latest petition aims to bring an end “the long standing refusal of the Attorney General to open criminal inquiries into cases of alleged torture and ill treatment which has effectively granted long-term immunity from prosecution to interrogators who use illegal methods that have and continue to include torture and ill treatment” (“PCATI Petitions the High Court of Justice: Order the Attorney General to Investigate Torture and Ill treatment,” 23 March 2011).

Cutting ties to the outside world

According to Omar Said, while he wasn’t tortured during Shabak custody, his interrogation and imprisonment were extremely difficult experiences that still affect him today.

“A man like me who was arrested many times, it was very hard and difficult for me. I can’t imagine what will happen to other people who haven’t been arrested before [to be arrested by Shabak],” Said said.

By persecuting Palestinian political leaders, Shabak is trying to intimidate the Palestinian community inside Israel and cut its ties to the wider Arab world, Said said.

“He told me from the beginning: we will teach the Arab population here how to behave and who [they can] contact. The first day, the Shabak interrogator said that. He said, ‘We cannot live with that connection that you made, and the Arabs here made, with the Arabs outside Israel,’” he recalled.

“We are activists in our societies and we represent the new generation of the community and we have wide connections with Arab activists and social activists. They want to cut these relationships.”