Torture distorts hopes of future generations

‘Don’t forget that it’s one of our rights as people under occupation, to keep resisting this occupation. Peace is the shortest way to security and stability. But peace cannot be built on occupation,’ reads a message from Marwan Barghouti from his prison cell.

Prison bars could not prevent him from continuing to inspire his constituency to struggle for their freedom. At the age of 17, he was jailed for six years for belonging to the then-outlawed Fateh movement. After he was released, he served as president of the student union at Beirzeit University. Israel deported him in 1987, just prior to the previous Intifada.

Barghouti was arrested in Ramallah by the Israeli army on April 13, and taken to the interrogation and detention centre at the Russian Compound �Moscowbiya�. Since then, Barghouti is being interrogated by the Israeli intelligence. Last week, the military court in the settlement Beit El extended Barghouti’s detention with twelve days. Human rights lawyers who visited Barghouti reported that he suffers from pain in his back and hands, caused by position abuse. His hands and legs are shackled to a small chair, angled to slant forward so that he cannot sit in a stable position.

Barghouti is held in solitary confined and is deprived of sleep for twenty hours a day since he was transferred to the Russian Compound. Like abusive body positioning, sleep deprivation is a common tactic used by Israeli interrogators.

Barghouti is not the only Palestinian who is in prison because he stands against Israel’s military occupation. He is not the only Palestinian who is detained and ill-treated by Israel.

In the past few months, Israel’s occupation army has rounded up thousands of Palestinian men and boys. They have been taken to detention centres both inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territories. These detention centres do not even meet the minimum standards of treatment, presenting a real threat to the lives of detainees. Thousands of prisoners have been exposed to ill-treatment and torture. At least five thousand Palestinians have been arrested since March 29.

The dominant interrogation method is a coordinated, rigid and increasingly painful regime of physical constraints and psychological pressure applied over several days, and often for weeks at a time, on detainees who are held without charge and usually without access to a lawyer. The chief methods included prolonged sleep deprivation, the use of blindfolds or tight-fitting hoods, shackling or otherwise forcing detainees in body positions that grow increasingly painful, prolonged toilet and hygiene deprivation, and verbal threats and insults. Many detainees are also beaten during rounds of questioning.

These abuses are practised systematically and with impunity. All detainees are reportedly being held in conditions which amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. A Military Order has just been issued denying access of detainees to lawyers.

Detainees are being held at a number of Israeli military camps and settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, but the Israeli army does not reveal the names of those they have arrested and where they are located. In violation of international human rights treaties, such the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Israel is a party, Palestinian detainees have been held in conditions which constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Those arrested and released have also reported being threatened and beaten by members of the Israeli army who detained them. They have been handcuffed for extended periods of time, and sometimes denied food, water and permission to use the toilet. Despite the cold nights, many detainees are sleeping on cold slabs and most spent the first night without being provided with a blanket.

Under international standards, any person who is arrested, detained or imprisoned has the right to inform, or have the authorities notify, their family or friends. The information must include the fact of their arrest or detention and the place where they are being kept in custody. The families of the detainees, have not received such information and do not know whether their relatives are dead or alive, following unconfirmed reports that some Palestinians taken by the Israeli army were extra-judicially executed.

On Sept. 6, 1999, the Israeli High Court passed a ruling in response to a petition by three human rights organisations that made illegal several interrogation methods used by the Israeli General Security Services, including violently shaking of a suspect, tying them in contorted positions to a small kindergarten chair, covering heads with sacks and sleep deprivation. This ruling was widely interpreted by the international community to mean that Israel had outlawed the practice of torture. In reality, this has never been the case. Rather, as has become apparent since the September 1999 ruling, this decision appears to have been merely a judicial ruse aimed at obfuscating the continued use of torture including torture of children.

Initial reports suggested that the use of torture declined or stopped in the days immediately after the High Court ruling. Subsequent reports by Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organisations, however, show that torture is still used with just as much frequency, having become more intense since the start of the Palestinian uprising against Israel’s military occupation that began in September 2000.

Nothing has improved since the 1999 ruling. Virtually every imprisoned Palestinian testifies to some form of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Moreover, they note that new, more insidious methods are being used more frequently, including more psychologically focused techniques, such as the use of isolation, using Palestinian collaborators to extract confessions, or pressures to collaborate with the Israeli military.

Israel is a signatory to the key human rights covenants that address torture and ill-treatment. It is therefore legally bound by these prohibitions. Israeli law prohibits torture and the introduction into evidence of tainted confessions and provides that public servants who use or direct the use of force against persons for the purpose of extorting a confession of an offence or information relating to an offence are liable to imprisonment.

Torture is abhorrent. Torture is illegal. Yet torture is inflicted on virtually every imprisoned Palestinian, including children. Despite the universal condemnation of torture, it is still used to extract confessions, to interrogate, to punish or to intimidate. The victims of torture are not just the people in the hands of the torturers. Friends, families and the wider community all suffer. Torture even damages and distorts the hopes of future generations.

Arjan El Fassed, one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada, is based in the occupied Palestinian territories and works as public advocacy officer of LAW - The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights in Jerusalem. He contributed this article to 24-25 May 2002 issue of the The Jordan Times.