Report: Israel's Shin Bet uses torture illegally in interrogations

Two human rights groups say Palestinian prisoners routinely abused, though Israel dismisses the charges.

The Israeli security service agency Shin Bet routinely violates international law by torturing Palestinian prisoners, according to a new report released by two Israeli human rights organizations.

B'Tselem and HaMoked, both of which work to fight violations of Palestinians' human rights, write in their joint report that their findings came from interviews with 73 West Bank Palestinians who were arrested and interrogated by Shin Bet, also known as the Israel Security Agency (ISA), between July 2005 and January 2006. The report, published Sunday, found that Shin Bet's interrogations, which averaged 35 days long for the 73 Palestinians interviewed, routinely included physical and mental abuse that approached torture, as well as outright torture in many cases.

...the ISA routinely operates an interrogation system involving the psychological and physical ill-treatment of interrogees. This system includes several key aspects: The isolation of the interrogee from the outside world; the use of conditions of incarceration as a means to apply psychological pressure and to debilitate the interrogee physically; the shackling of the interrogee in painful positions; the humiliation of the interrogee; and the use of threats. In a minority of cases, probably those defined as "ticking bombs," the ISA also uses violent interrogation methods that constitute full-scale torture (beating, the tightening of handcuffs, the sudden pulling of the body, the bending of the back, and so on).
Moreover, many ISA interrogees arrive at the interrogation facility after having been "softened up" by the soldiers who execute the arrest and who hold the detainees pending their delivery to the ISA. This "softening up" includes beating, painful shackling, humiliation, and the denial of vital needs. Although we do not have evidence to show that the motives of these soldiers or their commanders is to "soften up" the detainees ahead of their interrogation, this is the outcome in practical terms.

Haaretz writes that the Israeli Supreme Court declared an absolute ban on torture in 1999, though the ruling allowed methods of creating pressure or discomfort, so long as such methods were not meant to break morale. The ruling did allow torture, however, in cases defined as "ticking bombs," where interrogation might prevent an imminent terrorist attack. In such cases, the court ruled that interrogators would not face discipline.

The report says that despite the narrow definition of "ticking bomb" cases, Shin Bet interrogators did use those methods - defined by international law as illegal torture - in a significant number of the interrogations the report documented.

Their use is not negligible, even if not routine. The [Supreme Court] did rule that ISA interrogators who abused interrogees in "ticking bomb" situations may be exempted from criminal liability, but this only when the ill-treatment was used as a spontaneous response by an individual interrogator to an unexpected occurrence. In practice, all evidence points to the fact that "special" methods are preauthorized and are used according a preset regulations.

As a result of their findings, B'Tselem and HaMoked recommend that the Israeli government order Shin Bet to cease use of all injurious interrogation methods, enact legislation to prohibit torture without exception, bring interrogators who did torture prisoners to justice, and improve the documentation and transparency of interrogations so as to prevent future instances of torture.

The Associated Press writes that Israel's Justice Ministry dismissed the report in an official statement, saying that Shin Bet's interrogations are "performed in accordance with the law," and that the report is "fraught with mistakes, groundless claims and inaccuracies," though the ministry did not elaborate. It also said the information garnered from Shin Bet investigations have saved many civilian lives.

The Jerusalem Times reports that Boaz Oren, the deputy director of the Justice Ministry's Department for International Agreements and International Litigation, went further than the ministry's criticism of the report.

Oren wrote to Yehezkel Lein, the report's author, that "the report was based upon a nonrepresentative sample that seems to have been deliberately chosen, which distorts the reality prevailing in the course of arrest and interrogation of security prisoners."
Oren also said the report failed to provide identifying details on the prisoners who had complained and that therefore the Shin Bet and the IDF could not investigate their allegations.

The report acknowledges that the interrogated prisoners interviewed for the report are "not a representative sample," but that they "provide a valid indication of the frequency of the reported phenomena." And Voice of America reports that Mr. Lein says there is still plenty of evidence of systematic abuse, and notes that many of the prisoners, who do not know each other, gave nearly identical accounts of the interrogation methods used on them.

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