NGO accuses Israeli security establishment of spike in alleged torture, abuse

Shin Bet: We follow the law, all complaints checked by Justice Ministry.

IDF soldier handcuffs a man (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldier handcuffs a man
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An NGO on Thursday accused the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), IDF, police and Prisons Service of a spike in alleged torture and abuse of detainees starting in June, during Operation Brothers’ Keeper.
The Shin Bet gave an extensive rejection of these claims, as well as of torture that allegedly continued through the Gaza war and elevated tensions in the area through the end of 2014.
According to statistics presented by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) based on hundreds of prison visits, there were 66 alleged acts of torture or abuse in the second half of 2014, up from 19 alleged acts in the first half of the year.
PCATI did not distinguish between acts of torture and acts of abuse. It generally takes the position that it is simply fighting all deviant interrogation practices.
What is considered illegal torture or abuse versus, sometimes permitted under Israeli law, “moderate physical pressure,” is hotly debated both domestically and globally, with international law often giving few specifics.
“Moderate physical pressure” is a synonym for enhanced interrogation or pressure short of what the High Court of Justice would forbid as torture, and has been permitted for the sake of stopping a “ticking bomb” terrorist attack since a 1999 court decision – which also prohibited anything more than moderate pressure.
Of the 85 alleged acts for 2014, PCATI said that 48 complaints were submitted “to various investigatory powers,” including the Justice Ministry.
The 48 complaints themselves involve fewer than 48 Palestinians as some of them submitted multiple complaints.
Breaking down the 48 complaints: 23 were filed against the Shin Bet, 14 against the IDF, nine against the police or border police and two against the Prisons Service.
Since June 2014, 18 complaints claimed their interrogators used the “frog” or “banana” (contorted) positions against them, 19 complained of sleep deprivation, 12 of beatings during interrogation, eight of sexual harassment or assault during the interrogation, seven of physical violence during arrest and two of being physically shaken against High Court dictates.
PCATI said that the use of the “frog” and “banana” positions were most noteworthy since these methods had been used only 10 times in the prior four years.
No specifics were provided regarding the individual cases that made up the basis of the statistics, though some information is protected under gag order.
On March 3, 2014, the state attorney confirmed to the High Court that the Shin Bet does currently use moderate physical pressure in a small number of ticking bomb cases.
On June 18, 2014 multiple media reports said that a senior military source had told them that the Shin Bet was using moderate physical pressure on certain Hamas agents to get operational information for finding the kidnappers of three murdered Jewish teens, whose kidnapping brought about Operation Brothers’ Keeper.
The military source also said that the Shin Bet had gotten special approval for using enhanced interrogation from Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein.
A number of harsher and controversial tactics have been employed by the state in responding to increased security challenges since June 2014, such as house demolitions, though unlike torture, house demolitions were never forbidden by the High Court.
The Justice Ministry at the time referred all question to the Shin Bet.
The Jerusalem Post investigated the reports at the time, and each media source stood by the story, while security officials neither confirmed nor denied the statement, other than that the Shin Bet said that it neither asked for nor needs prior approval to undertake interrogations.
If true, the new PCATI statistics would confirm the June reports.
However, without assessing individual cases regarding each complaint’s veracity and whether, if moderate physical pressure was used, the Shin Bet would have a necessity defense for having tried to prevent a “ticking bomb” attack, it is impossible to know whether the complaints could legally carry criminal charges.
PCATI director Ishai Menuchin said, “some of the torture methods that were used are in full violation of High Court decisions... including giving advance approval for torture.”
He said that at least three detainees had been told by their interrogators that their torture had been approved by the attorney- general or other officials – which he called illegal.
Menuchin added that some detainees were allegedly tortured only after having been in administrative detention for some time, such that he questioned how they could provide updated and current information to help stop a ticking bomb attack.
The IDF, police and Prisons Service said that they could not respond without information about the specific allegations.
The Shin Bet did say, however, that it “acts solely within the law and is open to both internal and external oversight and criticism, including the state comptroller, the state attorney, the attorney-general, the Knesset and the courts.”
It continued, “Shin Bet detainees receive their full humanitarian rights that they are entitled to under the law, including: medical attention, meetings with lawyers and ICRC visits.”
Further, the Shin Bet stated, “every detainee complaint is passed on directly and immediately to the Justice Ministry’s head Shin Bet investigator, and handled by her.”
The statement concluded, “all decisions regarding handling of the complaints and taking follow- up actions regarding them, on the basis of reviews, are decided by the Justice Ministry.”
Of around 1,000 similar complaints filed since 2001, not a single criminal investigation has been opened to date, leading the Justice Ministry to take over investigations of complaints of torture against the Shin Bet in June 2013.
The new Justice Ministry division, which became fully operational in 2014, has sped up processing of complaints, but the jury is still out on whether it will be viewed as handling complaints better than the Shin Bet did.
Yaakov Lappin and Ben Hartman contributed to this report.