Update: In October 2014, only one case is still underway; it included the investigation of complaints by two minors and one adult who were interrogated at Etzion Police in May 2013. The other cases – opened by the DIP since 2009 in response to complaints B’Tselem filed on behalf of interrogatees at Etzion who complained of violence and threats in the course of questioning – were all closed. To date, no official has conceded the existence of this phenomenon, yet after B’Tselem met with senior police figures, it increasingly diminished and, ultimately, ceased. Since July 2013 B’Tselem has received no reports of violence or threats on the part of Etzion Police investigators in the course of questioning. This situation starkly contrasts with dozens of such reports made by interrogatees to B’Tselem previously.
B’Tselem is still trying to get official information from the authorities as to the system’s handling of the phenomenon. B’Tselem’s letter to State Attorney Shai Nitzan in this regard of 12 March 2014 has yet to receive a response.
Since November 2009, B’Tselem has received testimonies from dozens of Palestinian residents of the Bethlehem and Hebron districts, most of them minors, alleging that they were subjected to threats and violence, sometimes amounting to torture, during their interrogation at the police station at Gush Etzion. The station is located within the jurisdiction of the SHAI (Judea and Samaria) District of the Israel Police. The testimonies describe interrogations in which the minors were forced to confess to alleged offenses, mostly stone-throwing. In almost all cases, the interrogators stopped using violence against the interrogatees once they confessed.
The right of every person not to be subjected to ill-treatment or torture (whether physical or mental) is one of the few human rights that are considered absolute. As an absolute right, it may never be "balanced" 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. A confession obtained through violation of this right can certainly not serve as the basis for a conviction.
The interrogator made me go into a room. He grabbed my head and started banging it against the wall. Then he punched me, slapped me and kicked my legs. The pain was immense, and I felt like I couldn’t stand any longer. Then he started swearing at me. He said filthy things about me and about my mother. He threatened to rape me, or perform sexual acts on me, if I didn’t confess to throwing stones. His threats really scared me, because he was very cruel and it was just the two of us in the room. I remembered what I’d seen on the news, when British and American soldiers raped and took photos of naked Iraqis (from the testimony of M.H., resident of Husan, 14 at the time of his arrest).
In November 2009, B'Tselem began receiving reports of violence against Palestinian minors during interrogation at the Etzion police station. Until July 2013, B'Tselem field researchers collected 64 testimonies from residents of eight communities in the southern West Bank who reported such incidents. Fifty-six of them were minors at the time of their interrogation. The testimonies described severe physical violence during the interrogation or preliminary questioning, which, in some cases, amounted to torture. The violence included slaps, punches and kicks to all parts of the body, and blows with objects, such as a gun or a stick. Some of the former interrogatees also reported threats: in twelve cases, they claimed that the interrogator had threatened them or female relatives with sexual assault, such as rape and genital injury. In six cases, the interrogatees claimed that the interrogators had threatened to execute them; in eight cases, the interrogators allegedly threatened to harm family members; and in five other cases, they allegedly threatened to electrocute the interrogatees, including in a way that would damage their fertility.
In addition, twelve interrogatees stated that their initial confession had been taken by an interrogator in civilian clothes and that, to the best of their knowledge, at that stage, it had not been recorded. Only after they confessed to stone-throwing, they were transferred to another room, where an interrogator in police uniform asked them to repeat their confession, this time recording them. Later, the interrogators told them to sign a document in Hebrew, a language they do not understand, without knowing what they were signing.
The interrogator “Daud” took me outside with a soldier. They blindfolded me. The plastic cable ties were still on my hands. They put me in a car and started driving. I don’t know where they took me. We reached some place outside Etzion and they forced me out of the car. My hands really hurt because of the cable ties. They took off my blindfold. I didn’t know where I was. They tied me to a tree, and then they raised my cuffed hands and tied them to the tree, too. It hurt a lot. “Daud” started punching me. After a few minutes, he took out a gun and said: “I’ll murder you if you don’t confess! Out here, no one will find you. We’ll kill you and leave you here (M.A., resident of Husan, 15 at the time of his arrest).
The authorities' action on the issue:
From 2009 to 2013, B'Tselem sent 31 complaints to the Department for Investigation of Police (DIP) on behalf of Palestinians who reported they had been subjected to violence and threats by interrogators at the Etzion station. In the rest of the cases that B'Tselem documented, the interrogatees or their families chose not to file a complaint with the DIP, for fear that this would result in harm to members of the family who had already been interrogated or to other relatives, or because of a general lack of trust in the Israeli justice system.
Of the 31 interogatees in whose name B'Tselem complained to the DIP, 20 eventually withdrew from their intention to file a formal complaint and give testimony to DIP investigators, for the reasons stated above. The DIP decided not to investigate any complaints in which the complainant had not personally testified before investigators. Based on replies given to B'Tselem, none of the information sent to the DIP regarding those cases was checked, although this could have helped investigate the systemic practice.
The DIP only opened investigations into the eleven cases in which the complainants had personally given testimony. Three of the case files were closed and the investigation of eight, all opened in June 2012 or later, is still under way.
In its correspondence with the DIP, B'Tselem demanded that the issue of violent interrogations at the Etzion station be handled systemically, and not just through the investigation of each individual complaint. B'Tselem representatives also presented this demand to officials in the Israel Police and the Ministry of Justice. The DIP replied that a systemic investigation of the matter was under way.
Although B'Tselem contacted the Israel Police on this matter repeatedly, no official answer was given to the question whether any steps had been taken to address the phenomenon and, if so, what they were. All our communications with the police on the matter were met with denial. For example, in a meeting held on 7 January 2013, between B'Tselem representatives and the commander of the Hebron Police Division, the police officials denied the phenomenon existed. They refused to comment on the complaints themselves, claiming they could not verify the details of the cases since they were under ongoing investigation by the DIP, and there was a concern of obstructing the investigation. At the meeting, B'Tselem was also informed that the interrogation officer at the Etzion station had been replaced, although it was emphasized that this was unrelated to the complaints made by B'Tselem.
The high number of reports B'Tselem has received regarding violent interrogations at the Etzion station, and the fact that they span several years, gives rise to heavy suspicion that this is not a case of a single interrogator who chose to use illegal interrogation methods, but rather an entire apparatus that backs him up and allows such conduct to take place. Yet, to the best of B'Tselem's knowledge, no real effort has been made to date to discontinue the abuse, and no systemic investigation has taken place. The only action that has been taken was the investigation of individual complaints, which, more than a year later, have not concluded. Law enforcement agencies are allowing this reality to continue, despite the fact that all the relevant officials know that the claims relate to violence against minors under interrogation, and that, in some cases, the violence has amounted to torture.
Given the severity and scope of the suspicions raised, the DIP and the Israel Police must examine the issue systemically. If the claims are substantiated, they must take immediate action to stop the illegal conduct and take legal and administrative measures against those responsible, including officials who are aware of this conduct and are allowing it to continue. Also, the existence of efficient oversight mechanisms must be ensured, so as to prevent similar cases in the future.
The DIP must immediately conclude its investigation of the individual complaints, which has been under way for more than a year. If the claims are substantiated, those responsible must be brought to justice.
Finally, if it is discovered that forced confessions have served as central evidence in the trials of the interrogatees or other individuals, mistrials must be declared, and all the necessary steps that follow as a result must be taken.