The High Court of Justice declared torture illegal in 1999, but according to an NGO, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) never stopped using torture as an interrogation tool.

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel told The Jerusalem Post that the famous 1999 ruling was a positive turning point, but that the state and the Shin Bet have interpreted that ruling in a way that has led to “less brutality, but not less torture.”

PCATI announced last week that the Israel Prison Service had placed Palestinian minors suspected of crimes in outdoor cages during the height of the winter storm. (Justice Minister Tzipi Livni confirmed and eventually stopped this mistreatment.) In the wake of this revelation, the NGO spoke to the Post about some of its recent major activities and its view of changes the state is making in its treatment of Palestinian detainees.

The Shin Bet, meanwhile, denied it had committed torture or taken improper actions with detainees. It said all of its actions were consistent with Israeli law, court rulings and international law, and carried out under the close supervision of the attorney-general, the courts, detainees’ lawyers and visits from the International Red Cross.

PCATI gave an overview of what it considers progress, albeit incomplete, in what it called a battle against torture and human rights violations by the Shin Bet and, to a lesser extent, other arms of law enforcement.

The NGO said that whereas it views the 1999 High Court decision as “declaring torture illegal,” the Shin Bet has interpreted the decision as declaring that “anything not specifically prohibited is permitted” in a much more unqualified manner than there had been prior to the ruling.

The state’s interpretation finds its basis in the court’s discussion of a “ticking bomb” scenario as an exception to its declaration that torture is illegal.

Following the ruling, the state started declaring more and more detainees whom it interrogated to be potential ticking bombs, and has significantly over-expanded the envelope originally intended by the court, PCATI said, though it added that the court also has turned a blind eye.

Examples of alleged torture or human rights violations used following the 1999 ruling (some of which have since been stopped or curtailed) that PCATI gave included: shaking detainees, forcing them to sit in a “frog” position with their body bent into difficult positions, sitting in a chair designed to pressure the spine with hands tied behind the chair in a way that pressures other parts of the body, constantly blasting loud music at detainees and sleep deprivation.

Other demeaning complained-of behaviors include urinating and spitting on detainees.

The question of which “enhanced interrogation measures,” of those listed or otherwise, are considered “torture” by international law is hotly debated. What some consider torture, others consider to be abuse that is short of torture, or measures vital for collecting intelligence to save lives.

Regarding sleep deprivation, PCATI accused the Shin Bet of being “smart” about its flouting the law and taking advantage of the fact that only sleep deprivation for the sake of deprivation is illegal, not sleep deprivation indirectly caused from an extended interrogation.

PCATI said that the Shin Bet had interspersed interrogations with “breaks” to achieve extended sleep deprivation while being able to claim that everything it was doing was related to the interrogation.

Following various petitions to the High Court, some as recent as 2010, PCATI said that some of these techniques have been curbed. There are now prohibitions on constant blasting of loud music, and on use of the chair which pressures the spine, PCATI said, and the hands of detainees are now tied to the sides of their chairs, instead of behind their backs, and somewhat more loosely.

Another tactic that the organization said it had succeeded in rolling back through the courts was threats to rape and torture the family members of detainees.

Beyond rolling back tactics though, PCATI said that Shin Bet agents are never held accountable, noting that since 2001, out of 800 complaints filed with the Shin Bet, not a single one led to even opening a criminal investigation, let alone an indictment or a conviction.

A 2010 Justice Ministry report and the 2012 quasi-state Turkel Commission’s second report both sounded similar notes to PCATI, stating that the Shin Bet had not been investigating itself sufficiently (though the commission gave the IDF much higher marks for self-investigating).

Pressed as to why the NGO would believe detainees, some accused of serious crimes, over Shin Bet agents, who are tasked with defending national security, a PCATI spokesman admitted that it does not always know whether detainees’ complaints are truthful. He said, however, that the group often rejects following up on complaints if it appears that the detainee who made them might have acted violently in custody.

Also, PCATI said that it uses forensic evaluations, including psychological and medical professionals trained in the Istanbul Protocol, to evaluate the trustworthiness of detainees whose cases for physical abuse it follows up on.

The Shin Bet responded that “every interrogated detainee can complain directly or through others regarding the manner of his interrogation, and many do. Every complaint is checked seriously by the official responsible for checking detainee complaints and who is exclusively guided by a prosecutor from the State Attorney’s office.”

The Shin Bet added that “information obtained in Shin Bet interrogations facilitates frustration and prevention of murderous terror actions, and many Israeli civilians owe their lives to these actions.”

Another complaint from PCATI is that even as the state is providing slightly more of an explanation when it refuses to indict an agent for allegedly abusing a detainee, the explanations are still extremely delayed and inadequately succinct.

The NGO said that before, “it took five years to get a two-line answer,” and now, “it takes one year to get a four-paragraph answer with no supporting documents.”

On a recent complaint, PCATI said that essentially all it was told was that when the detainee said his interrogator hit him, the interrogator denied hitting him.

The spokesman asked rhetorically: “Who should I believe is lying? What kinds of questions were asked and was the questioning of the agent serious and independent?” PCATI expressed some cautious optimism that with the creation of a new, more independent department within the Justice Ministry in June 2013 to investigate complaints against the Shin Bet (following the recommendation of the Turkel Commission), there would be a change.

It complained that as of December 2013, it had still not received any formal updated responses to inquiries on several cases, despite assurances of receiving responses by October 2013. However, it said it was a good sign that it had recently had a “positive and constructive informal” meeting with Col. (res.) Jana Modgrashvili, head of the Justice Ministry’s new department.

The Justice Ministry said that as the Shin Bet complaints department is “still at the stage of being established,” it is “expected to be complete soon and is not yet operating at full capacity.”

Also on the positive side, PCATI noted a new practice in which it sometimes gets to “review uncensored material prior to having to file an appeal, setting a new legal precedent, and according to [a] declaration from the Justice Ministry’s High Court petitions division, represents a change in policy.”

Another major issue that PCATI has worked on recently surrounds a July 2013 report focusing specifically on allegations of torture and human rights violations against female Palestinian security detainees.

The report said that the Palestinian security detainees’ testimonies “paint a grim picture of the conditions under which” they are “imprisoned and interrogated,” citing “inferior conditions of imprisonment, violence in interrogation” and other issues.

But the report said that in addition, Palestinian female prisoners face “violations derived solely from their womanhood: the exploitation of aspects of their culture for the purpose of humiliation, failure to provide for their hygienic and medical needs and injury to their religious sensitivities.”

Next, the report alleged that the Prison Service’s rules regarding security prisoners lack certain basic explicit safeguards for Palestinian female prisoners’ rights, and that even those safeguards which are stated in writing are not enforced.

The report demanded that Israel uphold the 2012 Bangkok Rules for the treatment of women prisoners and the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, as well as adopting gender sensitive guidelines.

More specifically, the report recommended that the state allow Palestinian female prisoners to file complaints with the international Committee Against Torture and increase access for international observers.

Other specific complaints were religiously grounded. These included female detainees needing to shower in the men’s wing of the prison, being forced at times to wear pants and to not have a head-covering, having insufficient availability of hygienic pads and problems with needing to request more from male guards, as well as insufficient medical equipment for pregnant women.

Despite repeated requests, PCATI did not provide information about any of the concrete charges against the security prisoners, protesting that treatment should be divorced from the charges and making a general reassurance that the worst of the group had stabbed people, but were not “ticking bombs.”

While some might agree with PCATI that women’s human rights in prison are unrelated to their crimes, others might have less sympathy for the sensitivities of dangerous security prisoners and improper treatment of female detainees is an even newer niche in the international debate on defining “torture.”

The Israel Prison Service responded that it “waves the flag of the value of human life and dignity in its treatment of prisoners and detainees.”

It added that all of its actions are “consistent with international conventions and even go beyond” in terms of humane treatment.

As to certain specific allegations, it said some “relate to very old incidents, some relate to security policies in place in IPS detention centers and some are being addressed on an ongoing basis.”

A group of PCATI workers also wanted to emphasize that “We aren’t a bunch of anti-Israel looney-tunes like Im Tirzu portray us. We are within a consensus of people extremely worried” about democracy in the country.

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