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The New York Times, May 8, 1997

Israel Seeks to Justify Physical Coercion of Prisoners



JERUSALEM -- For a 20-year-old Palestinian student named George, the ordeal began with his arrest at a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He was taken first to the Jerusalem jail known as the Russian Compound, and after three days transferred to the interrogation center at the Ashkelon Prison.

For the next 17 days in December 1995, George endured what thousands of Palestinians have suffered at the hands of Israel's secret police, what Israel officially terms "moderate physical pressure," and human-rights groups call torture. He was kept sleepless in contorted and excruciating positions with a foul smelling bag over his head, he was threatened, he was beaten, and he was subjected to violent shaking until he passed out.

Israel, of course, is not alone among its neighbors in using physical coercion to extract information. The Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat has been accused of torturing several prisoners to death, accounts of torture are common in several Arab countries, including Syria and Iraq, and cases of police brutality are rife in every society.

But alone among its neighbors, and in a departure from the Western democracies whose values and laws it shares, Israel has sought to codify and legally justify the use of violence in interrogations, and the Israeli Supreme Court has regularly condoned the practice. Some Israelis defend this as an advance: an attempt to acknowledge and assert control over the more brutal forms of interrogation, which Israelis often argue are necessary and inevitable in any nation's fight against terror.

But now the approach is being fiercely criticized by human-rights groups in Israel and abroad. On Wednesday, in Geneva, the U.N. Committee Against Torture summoned Israel for an extraordinary hearing to face accusations that its practices violate the international convention against torture. Israel's accusers argue that regulating the use of torture only condones and encourages it.

The Israeli response in Geneva, as it is to all the attacks, is that the government has no option but to take extraordinary measures against the Arab militants who imperil the Jewish state.

"The need to combat the plague of terrorism is a matter vital to this discussion and cannot be ignored," Nili Arad, director-general of the Ministry of Justice, told the U.N. committee. The ministry asserts that the General Security Service -- the secret police better known as Shabak or Shin Bet -- has foiled 90 planned attacks over the last two years, although the secrecy surrounding the interrogations has left it unclear what role coerced information played in those cases.

But at the hearing, Israeli officials said a bombing was averted in recent weeks by information obtained from a suspected militant who has complained of being tortured.

At the same time, Ms. Arad maintained Israel's stand that the permitted methods of "moderate physical pressure" are not torture. Members of the U.N. committee -- like Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and various Israeli human-rights organizations -- insist that the Shin Bet's methods are indisputably torture as defined in international law.

And the conventions prohibiting it, they argue, exist precisely to protect detainees in extraordinary times, even in war.

"Israel is the only Western country that openly uses torture," said Lea Tsemel, a veteran defense lawyer and a founder of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. "This is not some brute in the secret services beating up a prisoner. It's done in the open. There is a quiet legitimation by a high-ranking commission and government ministers."

The Ordeal: Painful Sessions with 'Major Itai'

George, a tall, handsome, and soft-spoken man who said he was studying to be a certified public accountant, described the ordeal at his house while his parents and younger brothers listened anxiously.

He said he was arrested in December 1995, shortly before Israeli forces were to withdraw from Bethlehem, his home. According to human rights monitors, waves of detentions and interrogations preceded each Israeli withdrawal, possibly to garner what information Israel could before pulling out.

George told how several times during the interrogation, a big, muscular Israeli who gave his name as "Major Itai" and who spoke fluent Arabic with an Iraqi accent, seized him and violently rattled him back and forth, so that his head flopped uncontrollably, inflicting terrible pain to his spine and neck.

After two minutes, Itai would pause, then resume. After each session of shaking, of which he recalled seven, he was taken to a doctor, an Ethiopian Jew, to see whether he could take more. He remembers passing out three times, and once he had to be carried to the doctor. On that occasion, he said, the doctor gave him a Tylenol tablet.

Five days into the interrogation, George said that Itai hung him from a bar in the wall by his shackled hands, causing enormous pain. He said he screamed, while Itai laughed and cursed, yelling: "You will die here!" He said that Itai wore a wedding band, and once he heard him talking to his wife on the phone, telling her that he would be home on time.

The questions were about George's purported contacts in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist guerrilla organization that rejects peace with Israel and has headquarters in Syria; about the group's plans; about people he knew; and about unsolved militant attacks. George was not charged with membership in the group, which is illegal in Israel. Then, as now, George denied he had any such information or affiliation.

When he was not in interrogation, George said, he was held either in a dark room the size of a closet or shackled to a low chair tilted forward in the position known in Hebrew as "shabeh," which induces considerable pain to the back and does not allow more than snatches of sleep, with a foul smelling sack over his head and music blaring at top volume. Three times a day, he was given five minutes to eat and use the toilet, and once a week he was taken to a shower.

On weekends, when the interrogators at Ashkelon went off duty, George said he was transferred to the Russian Compound, where other interrogators would continue to grill him. He remembered them all, at Ashkelon and the Russian Compound, as did many other Palestinians who went through the same ordeal -- the brutal Itai and the "good cop" Colonel Roni, the huge Tareq, others who gave their names as Cohen, Mandi, Nadav, Abu Habib, Abu Khatem, or Shachar, all fluent in Arabic. George said that he was visited by a Red Cross worker after 13 days, and saw a lawyer after 20 days.

After his interrogation, George was kept in what Israel calls "administrative detention" -- for which the army does not require a trial or formal charges -- and then released on April 1. Since his release, he said, he has been moody and withdrawn, a common reaction among detainees who have shared his ordeal, and he now spends much of his time with other former detainees, some of whom he met at the Association for the Rehabilitation of Former Prisoners, a Palestinian organization.

The Law: A Panel's Inquiry, a Code of Violence

The duration of the ill-treatment and its extent may differ, but the experiences recounted by George have been described by hundreds of other Palestinians in interviews and affidavits, and endured by many thousands. The exact number is not known, since the Israeli government does not give information on the number of Palestinian detainees subjected to formal interrogation by Shin Bet, and only a relative handful of cases have reached the courts.

Human rights organizations have estimated that about 5,000 Palestinians a year were subjected to some combination of ill-treatment or violent methods in the years before the signing of the peace agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization 1993. By all accounts, the practice has continued unabated since.

But the domestic debate is not over the number, nor even the fact, of the practices, which the Israeli government acknowledges. The dispute, rather, is over the fact that the entire Israeli security, legal, and legislative establishment -- the secret services, the army, the Parliament and the courts -- has effectively institutionalized the use of violence in questioning Palestinians.

The legal basis for the methods is the report of a commission appointed in 1987 to investigate assertions of torture by the secret services. That panel, the Landau Commission, came up with the revelation -- stunning at the time -- that the Shin Bet had for years used violent methods in questioning Palestinians, including "criminal assault, blackmail, and threats," and then had routinely lied about it to military courts.

But instead of banning such practices outright, the commission proposed legalizing "a moderate measure of physical pressure" in interrogations, and spelled out permissible techniques. The details have remained classified -- on the ground that detainees should not know what they face -- even though pamphlets about the methods are readily available from human rights organizations.

Laws have been drafted to codify the commission's findings, but they have yet to reach Parliament. So the Landau Commission report stands as the policy of the land.

Every three months, a government committee extends the use of "special measures" for another three months. In the relatively few appeals brought to the High Court, the justices have generally acceded to the Shin Bet if it asked to continue using force in an interrogation.

The Debate: 'Ticking Bomb' and Human Rights

Official Israeli justifications come on several levels. The first is that violent shaking, sleep deprivation, and the other techniques are not torture. Human rights organizations counter that the 1984 U.N. Convention against Torture, which Israel ratified in 1991, defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person" to obtain information or a confession.

The next justification is that Israel faces a unique threat of terrorism, and therefore cannot be gentle with a detainee who may know of a "ticking bomb," Israeli shorthand for a violent militant act about to be committed. State lawyers and High Court justices argue that they are unfairly maligned by the world, since they do what every democratic country would do in similar circumstances, except that they try to do it under some official guidelines and controls.

Last November, in a case that gained considerable notoriety at home and abroad, the High Court issued an injunction one day against violent interrogation of a prisoner and lifted it the next at the request of the Shin Bet. During the hearing, the justices pressed the detainee's lawyer, Andre Rosenthal, to declare whether he would permit a prisoner to be tortured if the prisoner knew how to stop a bomb that was about to explode. When Rosenthal demurred, Justice Mishael Cheshin exploded at him: "That's the most immoral and extreme position I've ever heard in my life."

"We are in a terror situation, bombs explode around us, we have to use force, and for this decision we pay a big price," Shai Nitzan, an assistant attorney general who represents the Shin Bet, said in an interview.

"Look, I see myself as a liberal, as a defender of human rights. But there is the question of the right of people in Israel, Jews and Arabs, to life. That is more important than other rights. We cannot do without moderate physical pressure. I think it's very courageous of the court to act as supervisor on this, and not to just say, 'It's out of our jurisdiction.' "

Ruchama Marton, an Israeli psychiatrist and head of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, an organization that has long battled against torture, rejects such arguments.

"I can't stand it when the victimizers start acting victimized," she said. "When they tell me, 'It's you we're protecting,' I answer, 'Please don't.' I say time and time again, there's no way to maintain human rights if you allow any possibility to violate them. After all, all these conventions against torture were intended precisely to protect people from torture when there's danger from bombs and terrorists."

Like other representatives of human rights organizations, Dr. Marton rejects the state's assertion that it employs violence only in extreme cases. The use of violence is far too common, and the results unconvincing, she said.

"I believe the main reason for torture is to make the victim silent and frightened," she said. "All else is peanuts. Some 80 percent of Palestinians who are tortured are not indicted, but they, their family, and their friends are ruined and silenced. It's useless for anything else. Look, if I was tortured I'd tell you anything. I'd just try to figure out what you want."

The Participants: Urgency Cited and Denied

Former members of the Shin Bet insist that since the 1987 reform, the use of force has been limited and used only in cases of "ticking bombs."

"It's not possible that we used force on any man who was innocent," said Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet who now sits in Parliament as a Likud deputy. "There's not more than 5 percent that need the use of force, maybe less. I don't have any conscience problem, and in my place I'm sure you would have acted the same way."

Ms. Tsemel dismisses the argument that violent interrogation is only used in cases of a "ticking bomb."

"If you have time to go to court and ask the judge permission to torture someone, then the bomb is not 'ticking,' " she said. "Every Palestinian is in the eyes of the secret services a 'ticking bomb.' Believe me, no one, not Andre Rosenthal, not I, would go to court if a person was walking with a ticking bomb. There's a law that allows a defense of necessity in such cases. But there's also a law that you do not extract information from people with such measures, unless you know there's a bomb ticking."

One problem in evaluating whether the use of physical force prevents terrorist attacks is that many of the facts in Shin Bet cases are concealed from public scrutiny. In the few cases that human rights lawyers do manage to bring before the Supreme Court, the lawyers are not permitted to review any files, nor to cross-examine the interrogators.

The High Court has developed an elaborate justification for its approach to such cases. It asserts that it does not explicitly authorize the use of violent interrogation in advance, but establishes only that Shin Bet seems to have sufficient suspicions so that if it does use force, it will be able to justify it afterward.

Yet one justice acknowledged that the High Court has never followed up on a case to find out if there was in fact a "ticking bomb."

The Justice Ministry's assertion that Shin Bet foiled 90 planned attacks by guerrillas over the last two years is also unverifiable, and it does not say whether any of those were blocked through information extracted under force.

In Geneva on Wednesday, though, Israeli officials provided an example of a militant act prevented through the use of information obtained under coercion from a Palestinian detainee. They said a man arrested in a bombing in Tel Aviv this spring had led them to a second bomb that was found before it caused injury.

Extensive interviews with former detainees by human rights organizations, lawyers, and reporters suggest that many of the interrogations have little to do with imminent attacks.

In the case of George, the questions he said he was asked, the fact that it was three days before his interrogation began, that he was interrogated on a 9-to-5 basis, that the interrogation lasted 17 days, and that he was eventually released without charges, all call into question the assumption that the authorities arrested him because they knew of a specific danger that information extracted from him could avert.



© Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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