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From the field

Torture and Abuse in Interrogation

In interrogating Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories, the Israel Security Agency (ISA, also known by the Hebrew acronyms Shin Bet or Shabak) routinely used methods that constituted ill-treatment and even torture until the late 1990s. In doing so, the ISA relied on the 1987 recommendations of a state commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau. The commission had held that, in order to “prevent terrorism”, ISA interrogators 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” laid out in Israeli Penal Law. In practice, the interrogation methods used by the ISA during that time went far beyond a reasonable interpretation of the term “moderate physical pressure”.

The cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – sometimes tantamount to torture – employed in ISA interrogations persists with the aid and backing of the Israel Prison Services, the Attorney General and the justices of the Supreme Court.

This state of affairs persisted for years, despite the right not to be subjected to ill-treatment or torture – whether physical or psychological – being one of the few human rights that are considered absolute. As an absolute right, it may never be balanced against other rights and values and cannot be suspended or limited, even in difficult circumstances.

In September 1999, following a series of petitions filed by human rights organizations and by Palestinians interrogated by the ISA, Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) ruled that Israeli law does not empower ISA interrogators to use physical means in interrogation. The justices ruled that the specific methods discussed in the petitions – including painful binding, shaking, placing a sack on a person’s head for prolonged periods of time and sleep deprivation – were unlawful. However, they also held that ISA agents who exceed their authority and use “physical pressure” may not necessarily bear criminal responsibility for their actions, if they are later found to have used these methods in a “ticking bomb” case, based on the “necessity defense”. Following this ruling, reports of torture and ill-treatment in ISA interrogations did drop. However, ISA agents continued to use interrogation methods that constitute abuse and even torture, relying on the court’s recognition of the “ticking bomb” exception. These methods were not limited to exceptional cases and quickly became standard interrogation policy.

Several joint research reports published by B’Tselem and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, based on hundreds of affidavits and testimonials given by Palestinians who underwent ISA interrogations after the HCJ ruling, indicate that the ISA still routinely employs psychological and physical abuse in interrogations. While interrogators steer clear of the specific methods that the court disqualified, the rationale is the same: using isolation from the outside world and harsh incarceration conditions, in addition to the interrogation itself, to psychologically pressure and physically weaken the individual. This combined use of holding conditions and interrogation methods constitutes abuse and inhuman, degrading treatment, at times even amounting to torture. It is regularly employed against Palestinians in ISA interrogations, in blatant violation of international law and basic moral standards.

According to the accounts of Palestinians who have undergone ISA interrogation, they are held in inhuman conditions, including narrow, windowless cells that are sometimes moldy and foul-smelling and are constantly lit with artificial lighting that is painful to the eyes. Some detainees reported being held in solitary confinement, completely cut off from their surroundings. Some reported exposure to extremes of heat and cold, as well as sleep deprivation. Many described abominable hygienic conditions; among other things, they stated that the prison authorities do not allow them to shower, change clothes, brush their teeth or even use toilet paper. The food is intentionally poor in quality and quantity, and detainees lose weight while in custody. In the interrogation room, they are forced to sit bound to a chair, without moving, for hours and even days on end. Interrogators threaten the detainees, including threats to harm their relatives, as well as shouting and employing violence against them.

Most Palestinians who are physically or mental abused in interrogation have no way to complain until the interrogation is over. This is because Palestinian detainees are regularly denied the right to meet with counsel, and HCJ petitions against the denial of this right have been repeatedly dismissed. Also, they usually cannot use the opportunity of coming before a judge in a remand hearing to air their grievances: Most hearings are extremely cursory and, in some of them, detainees are not represented or are denied the opportunity to confer with the lawyer representing them. Most detainees are not aware of the fact that they may approach the judge on their own initiative. In any case, they shy away from sharing what they are undergoing with the judge for fear of reprisal back in the interrogation room. Even when detainees do come forward, the authorities take no action, as years of monitoring by human rights organizations reveal. Since 2001, not a single criminal investigation has been launched into a complaint against an ISA interrogator, despite hundreds of complaints being lodged with the relevant authorities. Although formal changes have been made to the apparatus charged with looking into these complaints – including the appointment of an Inspector of Complaints by ISA Interrogees inside the ISA, and the subsequent transfer of the position to the Ministry of Justice – they have done nothing to alter the situation: Hundreds of complaints, zero criminal investigations.

This system of interrogation, which relies on a combination of holding conditions and interrogator conduct, was shaped by state authorities. It is not the personal initiative of any particular interrogator or prison guard, and the actions described here are not anomalies to be weeded out by the justice system. The cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees is inherent to the ISA’s violent interrogation policy. This policy is dictated from above, and not set by interrogators in the field.

While the ISA runs the system, a broad network of partners collaborates to facilitate it. The Israel Prison Service (IPS) adapts prison conditions to match the interrogation plan designed to break the detainee’s spirit. Medical and mental health personnel 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, knowing full well that they would be subjected to measures of abuse and torture; 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. Finally, HCJ judges regularly reject petitions seeking to overturn the denial of detainee’s rights to meet with legal counsel, clearing the way for continued abuse.

All these are party, in one form or another, to the cruel, inhuman, degrading and abusive treatment to which Palestinians are subjected in ISA interrogations. By enabling the existence of this abusive interrogation regime, they all bear responsibility for the severe violations of interrogatees’ human rights and for the mental and physical harm inflicted on these individuals.