Palestinian officials allege torture

Three ministers claim Israel used a banned method of interrogation on them known as the shabah.

A government minister in the Palestinian Authority, who was arrested and held by Israeli authorities for more than six weeks this summer, says that during his interrogation he was tied for hours in a painful position known as the shabah. The technique, which Israeli security officials had argued was an effective way to put pressure on a suspect, was banned by Israel's Supreme Court in 1999.

An East Jerusalem lawyer says that two other top-level officials in the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, who were arrested in the aftermath of the June 25 kidnapping by Hamas militants of an Israeli army corporal, have been subjected to the same treatment.

"For five, six, seven hours, they would take me and tie my hands behind my back like this, and with my feet up, in the shabah," says Minister of Labor Mohammed Barghouthi, recalling his interrogation in an interview in his office.

"To go from the minister's office to a shabah seat, it was quite a shock," says Barghouthi, who is not a Hamas member and says he was offered the ministry appointment primarily for his management experience: He founded a successful advertising firm and has been a school superintendent. "It caused a lot of pain in my neck and back, but the psychological pain is much worse."

The General Security Service (GSS), also known as the Shin Bet, responded by e-mail that "all the interrogations of the ISA (Israeli Security Agency) [including Barghouti's] are executed according to the laws of the Supreme Court of Israel."

In 1999, a nine-judge panel of the Supreme Court unanimously outlawed methods of physical force that were routinely used by Shin Bet. Techniques banned in the decision included holding and tying the prisoner in painful positions, violent shaking, sleep deprivation, covering the head with a sack, and playing loud music.

Senior officials in Israel's security establishment opposed the decision because, they said, it could weaken investigative powers by disallowing techniques that might be instrumental in getting suspects to confess. Exceptions may be made, the court decided, if someone is suspected of having information about an imminent terrorist attack.

"But none of these men is considered a ticking bomb," Eyal Hareuveni, spokesman for the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, says of the Palestinian cabinet members and members of parliament who were arrested. "The Supreme Court said that in cases of a 'ticking bomb,' investigators can use methods of interrogation that we interpret as torture. The number of complaints over the use of this decreased since 1999, but we still get dozens of complaints every year."

Jessica Montell, the executive director of Btselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, says the Supreme Court decision made a significant impact, but that it is clear the method is still used.

"Since 1999, the numbers of people subjected to physical force have gone way down, but there are enough cases to be worrying," she says. "Before 1999, it was just an assembly line of torture, some lighter, some more serious. Now the people who are being subjected to torture or to other physical abuse are people who have information that the GSS wants access to. It doesn't justify it, but it's much more focused."

It isn't clear what kind of information investigators expected to get from Barghouthi. "All the questions were about my role as a minister, how I became a minister," he says.

Barghouthi says he was never beaten, but on the day of his arrest he was shackled, blindfolded, and had his cellphone confiscated. He says that the incarceration included 35 days in a windowless, solitary cell in Jerusalem's Russian Compound. "Night and day, I never knew what time it was," he says. "I never saw my face. I never saw the sun. I had no change of clothes."

He says interrogators threatened to arrest his wife or his father if he didn't cooperate. By the time of his release, he says he had lost 26 pounds.

Barghouthi and Fadi Kawasmi, the lawyer, say two other officials were subjected to similar treatment in interrogation: Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Khaled Abu Arafe and Deputy Prime Minister Nasser ed-Din es-Shah. Mr. Kawasmi, who is Mr. Abu Arafe's attorney, says his client and Dr. Shah told him of the treatment during visits he made to them while incarcerated.

One of the arguments Kawasmi used to secure their release was that Israel had not acted until now as if being a member of Hamas's Change and Reform Party was illegal. Israel, he points out, allowed the Palestinian elections to take place in January and for the Hamas-affiliated candidates to run in East Jerusalem, which has officially been annexed to Israel.

"You let them participate," Kawasmi says. "You can't come and arrest them now and accuse them of being members of a parliament chosen by an election in which you allowed them to run."

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