RIGHTS-ISRAEL: Israeli NGOs Urge End To ‘Legalised Torture’

Deborah Horan

JERUSALEM, May 19 1998 (IPS) - Using actors demonstrating various methods of torture in Israeli prisons, the rights NGO B’Tselem called on the security services to stop using legalised methods of painful interrogation against Palestinian detainees.

B’Tselem, Israel’s best-known human rights group, made its call Tuesday, a day after the United Nations Committee Against Torture, meeting in Geneva, reiterated its own call on Israel to cease the use of torture against prisoners.

“Israel is the only country on earth where torture and ill- treatment are legally sanctioned,” noted the rights group Amnesty International last week in a letter to the Geneva committee.

On Wednesday, in a potentially precedent-setting session, Israel’s High Court of Justice will hear four petitions filed by left-wing groups asking the court to rule on delicate issues it has so far skirted.

They seek a ruling on whether the government has a right to recommend the use of ‘moderate physical pressure’ against detainees and whether such practices constitute torture.

“So far, the High Court has avoided these issues,” said Jessical Montell, development director at B’Tselem. “They’ve issued rulings when a detainee goes to the court and says ‘I am being tortured’ and in some cases they have ordered the interrogation to stop. But they haven’t dealt with the bigger issues.”

In 1987, the Landau Commission, a government-appointed body, recommended the use of what it called ‘moderate physical pressure’ against detainees in so-called ‘ticking bomb’ situations — if there was reason to believe that the detainee had information t hat could prevent an attack and save lives.

Israel’s penal code explicitly prohibits the use of violence against detainees, said Montell.

Israel has maintained that such force is necessary in the fight against terrorism. Since 1994, more than a dozen suicide bombers belonging to militant Islamic organisations have killed scores of Israelis.

Since then 10 Palestinians have died during interrogation, the last one in April 1995, when Abdel Samed Hamizat died of a brain haemorrhage after being violently shaken.

Several Palestinians have also died in custody in Palestinian prisons since Yasser Arafat’s government came to Gaza in 1994.

“Israel makes use of this rhetoric of the “ticking bomb” to systematically torture hundreds of detainees a year,” said Montell. “Our estimates are 850 a year. It’s clear that the (security services) are not claiming 850 ticking bombs a year.”

B’Tselem said in many cases, a detainee was labeled a “ticking bomb” by security services seeking court approval to continue an interrogation. But once the interrogation was concluded, the suspect was released without charge.

In May 1997, after examining a special report by Israel, the Committee found that these interrogation practices, used by Israel’s General Security Service (GSS), constituted torture and that their use violates Article 1 of the Convention against Torture

and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the Convention).

B’Tselem estimates that every year, some 850 of some 1,000 – 1,500 Palestinian detainees are tortured with using “moderate physical pressure”.

In a newly released report, it described a method called ‘shabeh’ in which the detainee is shackled for days at a time to a small chair that is angled forward so that the detainee cannot sleep.

Other methods, which Montell called ‘low grade torture’ include holding the prisoner in isolation in cramped and filthy conditions without allowing him to change clothes, sometimes for months. Prisoners must eat with their hands in toilet stalls, the rep ort says.

A method, called ‘qasat-a-tawleh’ in Arabic, forces the prisoner to sit or kneel in front of a table with his arms bound and stretched behind him on the table. Sometimes the interrogator puts his feet on the prisoners’ shoulders to add pressure and incre ase pain.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Israeli actors played out the different methods of torture, while one actor read the testimonies of Palestinians who have been interrogated using such methods.

In a press release entitled ‘Ticking Bombs — Where Are They Now?’, B’Tselem chronicled the case of ‘Zaghel’, a Palestinian arrested in March 1996, shortly after a bomb exploded in Tel Aviv, killing and injuring dozens of Israelis. “Zaghel” was held wi thout charge and interrogated for months. The following September, he was released without charge.

B’Tselem chronicled dozens of Palestinians with similar stories. After months of interrogation, they were released without charge or sentenced to relatively light sentences, such as one year, which human right’s activists say implies that they constitute d a relatively minor security threat.

B’Tselem said Wednesday’s hearing offered an opportunity for the court to clarify its position on the whether a certain method of interrogation should be prohibited.

“In the past, the Court has said that it would not going to rule on whether a method constitutes torture, but then it says that the (security services) can continue what it is doing,” said Montrell. “It’s a difficult position to maintain — if you’re not sure it’s torture, then how can you allow it to continue.”

Last year, in a ruling the outraged human rights organizations, Israel’s High Court ruled that security services are allowed to hold Lebanese nationals as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for release of Israeli prisoners of war and soldiers reported

‘missing in action’.

“It was an astounding decision for any court — essentially saying that hostage-taking is allowed, is legitimate,” said Montell.

Several Palestinians have also died in custody in Palestinian prisons since Yasser Arafat’s government came to Gaza in 1994.

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