Background: Torture and abuse in interrogations

Published: 
1 Jan 2011
Updated: 
29 Mar 2016

The right of every person not to be subjected to ill-treatment or torture (physical or psychological) is one of the few human rights that are considered absolute. As an absolute right, it may never be "balanced out" against other rights and values, nor suspended or limited, even in difficult circumstances such as war or fighting terrorism. This right now holds the highest and most binding status in international law. Nevertheless, until the late 1990s, the Israel Security Agency (ISA, formerly the General Security Service) routinely used methods that constituted ill-treatment and even torture in interrogating Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories, relying on the recommendations of a state commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau. The Commission had held that, in order to prevent terrorism, ISA agents were permitted to use "psychological pressure" and a "moderate degree of physical pressure". This permission was grounded, in the Commission's opinion, in the "necessity defense" in the Penal Law.

Excerpt from the testimony of MA, interrogated with "special measures" by the ISA.

In September 1999, the High Court of Justice ruled (HCJ) that Israeli law does not empower ISA interrogators to use physical means in interrogation, and that the specific methods discussed in the petition – including painful binding, shaking the person, placing a sack on a person’s head for prolonged periods of time, sleep deprivation – were unlawful. However, the court also held that ISA agents who exceeded their authority and used "physical pressure" might not bear criminal responsibility for their actions, if it is subsequently found that they used these methods in the case of a "ticking time-bomb" case, relying on the "necessity defense".

The HCJ’s decision led to a significant drop in the number of reports of torture and ill-treatment in ISA interrogations. However, relying on the "ticking time-bomb" exception, ISA agents have continued to use interrogation methods that constitute abuse and even torture. A number of join reports by B’Tselem and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, based on hundreds of affidavits and testimonials given by Palestinians who had undergone ISA interrogations indicate that the ISA still routinely employs psychological and physical abuse in interrogations. The ISA interrogation regime is based on isolation from the outside world and harsh incarceration conditions as a means to psychological pressure and physically weaken the person under interrogation, in conjunction with overt interrogation in the interrogation room. This combination of conditions both in and outside the interrogation room constitutes abuse and inhuman, degrading treatment, at times even amounting to torture. It has been used systematically against Palestinians interrogated by the ISA, a practice that blatantly violates international law, the HCJ ruling, and basic moral standards.

The accounts collected indicate that inerrogatees are held in inhuman conditions, in narrow, windowless cells, that are sometimes foul-smelling, constantly lit with artificial lighting painful to the eyes. Some detainees reported being held in solitary confinement, completely isolated from their surroundings. Some reported exposure to extremes of heat and cold, and sleep deprivation. Hygienic conditions are abominable; among other things, prison authorities did not allow detainees to shower, change clothes, or even use toilet paper. Food is poor in quality and quantity, and detainees lose weight while in custody. In the interrogation room, they are forced by interrogators to sit bound to a chair and cannot move, for hours and even days at a time. Interrogators threaten the detainees, including threats to harm their relatives, shout at detainees and even use force against them. The interrogation system that relies on these methods, both in overt interrogation and in the conditions in which detainees are held, was shaped by the state and is not the result of the initiative of any particular interrogator or prison guard. These actions are not carried out by so-called “rotten apples”, nor are they exceptions who must be brought to justice. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees is inherent to the ISA’s interrogation policy, which is dictated from above, not set by interrogators in the field.

While the system is run by the ISA, a broad network of partners collaborates to facilitate it. The IPS creates prison conditions to match the interrogation plan designed to break a detainee’s spirit; IPS medical and mental health professionals greenlight the interrogation of Palestinians who arrive at the facility – including in cases of poor health – and even hand detainees back to the interrogators after caring for physical and mental injuries they sustained in interrogation; soldiers and police officers abuse detainees while transporting them to the ISA, with their commanders turning a blind eye and the MAG Corps and State Attorney’s Office not bringing them to justice or holding them fully accountable; military judges almost automatically sign off on motions for remand in custody and effectively sanction the continued abuse and inhuman conditions; the State Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General have thus far provided ISA interrogators with full immunity; and HCJ judges systematically reject petitions seeking to overturn the denial of detainee’s rights to meet with legal counsel.

They are all party, in one form or another, to various aspects of the cruel, inhuman, degrading and abusive treatment to which Palestinians interrogatees are subjected. The senior Israeli officials who enable the existence of this abusive interrogation regime bear responsibility for the severe violations of interrogatees’ human rights and for inflicting mental and physical harm on these individuals.