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Ha'aretz, January 17, 1999

The Shin Bet's Farce

By Gideon Levy


Sometimes you read a report in the paper and you don't know whether to laugh or cry; you can't tell whether it's serious or someone is pulling your leg. One such report concerns the improvements the Shin Bet internal security service is going to introduce in its interrogations. Last Wednesday, attorney Shai Nitzan, from the State Prosecutor's Office, informed a nine-member panel of the High Court of Justice that the Shin Bet, which he was representing in the hearing, intends to begin using "less onerous" means of interrogation - a "ventilated sack" and "relatively comfortable handcuffs.".Nitzan, in all seriousness, explained to the justices and to the petitioners - representatives of several human rights organizations - that the Shin Bet is aware that some of its interrogation methods have an "onerous effect," and therefore it has decided to inject a bit of relief. No more stinking sack, which according to the testimonies of interrogation subjects is urinated on by a large number of police officers and interrogators before it is placed on the detainee's head for days at a time; now we will have an "airier" sack. No more handcuffs that rip into the skin; they will be replaced by a newer, more comfortable model.

There will be an end to the array of weird knots the Shin Bet has devised for us. They include the bad old "shabah," in which interrogation subjects are tied to a low stool that is tilted forward; the relatively new "kasat a-tawla," a painful stretching of the body achieved with the use of a table and direct pressure; and the "kambaz," or frog position, in which the interrogator forces the subject to bend forward on the tips of his toes with his hands tied behind, and if he falls he is forced, with kicks and blows, to return to the original excruciating position or face a violent shaking. All this will now be effected with the use of comfortable cuffs.

What induced the Shin Bet to decide to grant such grand relief? Did it only now learn about the "onerous effect" entailed in its methods? Are these new technological advances? Perhaps the danger of the "ticking bomb" has been lessened to such a degree that the Shin Bet can allow itself to ventilate its sacks and soften its irons? Or does the state believe that the use of such means will no longer be considered torture?

So the farce in the High Court of Justice continues. A hearing of principle about the Shin Bet's interrogation methods, which has already been dragged out for more than five years continues to roll from one hair-raising absurdity to the next. In the court's previous hearing on the petition, which was held six months ago, someone brought a tilted footstool to show the judges the "shabah" position; in the next session, last week, we were told about the airy bags. The High Court, which has lately criticized the government for tarrying in the formulation of a bill to regulate Shin Bet interrogations, continues to hold the government responsible for the most severe human rights violations being committed in Israel. From session to session, and the hearings are spaced months apart, the High Court keeps declining to state its approach of principle, which is so essential.

In the meantime, the years slide by and torture in interrogations continues. Thousands of Palestinian detainees go through the Shin Bet's interrogation chambers - between 1,000 and 1,500 a year, according to the human rights groups, and even the Shin Bet has admitted that there are hundreds a year - but the High Court, the beacon of justice, remains mute. Only the state speaks out, and what it has to say is increasingly horrific, but no one takes notice as the torture becomes routine and, appallingly, the discussion on torture becomes procedural.

Originally the state denied it used torture; then its use was said to be confined to ultra-exceptional cases in the form of "walking, ticking bombs"; and last Wednesday the state's representative argued to the High Court that violent shaking is permissible even if the subject is not a "ticking bomb" and that it is in itself a "legitimate and desirable act." "Can anyone shake another person if immediate danger exists?" Justice Shlomo Levin asked, and attorney Nitzan replied on the spot in the affirmative.

If the method is so good, we might ask, why not torture dangerous criminals too? And if it's so effective, why not toughen the measures a bit - pulling out fingernails has been known to produce swift results.

You might think that the state has made progress. It once denied the use of these vicious interrogation methods and attributed them to the Palestinians' imagination and propaganda. Today, a state prosecutor now speaks in praise of violent shaking (which can also be fatal, it should be recalled). The admission, it might be thought, is an important stage on the way to reform.

But this is not the case. The indifference with which the public accepts the state's assertion that it practices torture as a matter of routine turns the horror into legitimate reality. Torture becomes kosher - all you have to do is give the sacks a bit of an airing out. In the Occupied Territories there are thousands of people who bear the scars, physical and mental, of the lengthy interrogations they endured. Abd al-Ahmed, from Bethlehem, pukes his guts out twice a day, Omar Ghanimath was put through the seven circles of hell until he was convicted of ... hiding a rifle he received from an Israeli. In our own and others' eyes we are a country that tortures people under interrogation, and so far there has been no salvation from the Supreme Court, until the next hearing, or the one after that



(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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