Gloves off!

Issue 

by Hannah Friedman

Ahmad Ibrahim Sa'id, engineering student at Birzeit University and Hamas activist, stood before his interrogators. They announced, "We've taken off the gloves. We're acting on an explicit order from Prime Minister Rabin to interrogate you without restrictions."

At the time these words were spoken, in November 1994, Ahmad Sa'id had amassed a wealth of experience with "gloves on" interrogation by Israel's General Security Services (GSS), also called the Shin Bet.

Sa'id was first arrested on June 26, 1994. According to testimony he gave his lawyer, Leah Tsemel of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), Sa'id's interrogators claimed he had met with someone and wanted information about the encounter. Sa'id denied knowing the person.

He was made to sit for many hours, day after day, on a special low chair. He was forced to stand, sometimes between 18 and 20 hours straight, with his hands and feet cuffed, and a stinking bag over his head. The interrogators made him lie on a chair in a contorted position, hands bound, while they played at dislodging him. When he was unable to keep the position and fell on his back, they promised him that he would leave the session paralysed and sterile. At the time he gave this testimony to his lawyer, Ahmad had already gone a week without sleep.

That was the situation in June — gloves on. The description is typical of many which the PCATI has accumulated, mostly from members of Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, all of whom were arrested after the Oslo Agreement.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem issued a report in November based on the testimony of nine Palestinians whom the GSS had interrogated "gloves on". The nine claim that they were kicked on all parts of the body, including the testicles, punched, whipped with a ruler, violently shaken, subjected to pressure on sensitive parts of their bodies, and deprived of sleep for up to 18 days.

In November, after a series of attacks by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, the prime minister supported the GSS's complaints about these "gloves" — namely, the restraints which the Landau Commission had imposed on interrogators after the scandals of the '80s.

The Landau Report of 1987 restricted methods of interrogation to psychological tactics; where these failed, however, it permitted the use of "moderate physical pressure". The meaning of this term (one presumes) is spelled out in the report's secret appendix, although we can deduce the same from the descriptions which victims have given over the years, including those summarised above.

Such measures, it seems, are not enough for the politicians. Once again, after a series of attacks on Israelis, they have sought to intensify methods of interrogation and stiffen punishments. This time they succeeded. The Landau Report stipulates a periodic review of the committee's findings, in order to evaluate the methods of interrogation allowed by the report and determine whether they are still appropriate.

According to an article by Gideon Allon in Ha'aretz (14/11/94), such a meeting was convened in early November. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, justice minister David Liba'i, state prosecutor Dorit Beinish, and attorney general Michael Ben Ye'ir considered complaints from GSS officials regarding restrictions during interrogations, reported Allon. For the first time, it was decided to give individual interrogators more leeway and to ease the Landau Report restrictions. Liba'i, however, denied that the latest recommendations had gone beyond the Landau Report.

One wonders what it will mean to unleash the GSS even more. What further measures do they want to use?

Ran Kislev points out in Ha'aretz (6/12/94) that there is no evidence to suggest that "a little less law" (i.e., a little more torture) decreases the amount of terrorism. On the contrary, citing the examples of Egypt and Algeria, Kislev notes that regimes using cruel means of torture and execution face higher and higher levels of terrorism.

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel continues in its efforts to limit the GSS's methods of interrogation. One such effort is legislation based on the UN's Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (which Israel has ratified).

Two proposed laws are now before the Knesset. The first, an amendment to Israel's criminal law entitled Prohibition Against Torture, was drafted in 1991 by Knesset member Tamar Gujansky of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. It passed the initial reading in that year and again in 1992. [New legislation must pass three "readings" or Knesset votes.]

The second draft law, called Human Dignity Under Interrogation, was written this year by Hebrew University law professors Mordechai Kremnitzer and Uriel Procaccia. This law is being considered by the Knesset Legal Committee. It has yet to come up for the initial reading.

In addition, attorney Avigdor Feldman approached the Israeli High Court of Justice on behalf of PCATI. He filed a new petition, based on an earlier one rejected in August 1993, calling for cancellation of the provisions in the Landau Report and the exposure of its secret portion.

The petition also argues that the GSS has no legal basis for its authority or actions. PCATI claims that it acts only on the basis of a government order, without drawing its authority from the law, as do the police and the prison system.

Even the permitting of so-called "moderate physical pressure" is illegal according to Israeli criminal law and the laws of evidence, as well as the aforementioned International Convention Against Torture, and, not least, the Law of Human Dignity and Freedom.

On December 7 the High Court directed the government and the head of the GSS to explain within 60 days why the GSS should not be prevented from carrying out interrogation, arrests and searches, as long as the law does not explicitly authorise it to do these things. We await the response.

I continue to hope that morality and common sense will prevail. High Court Justice Aharon Barak spoke of a "constitutional revolution". He was referring to the passage of a basic law entitled the Law of Human Dignity and Freedom [basic laws are predecessors to a constitution]. This law calls for sanity, even in the "war against terrorism", and for respecting human dignity, even amid the searches, arrests and interrogations of the GSS. It was passed by the Knesset two years ago.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Sa'id is still being interrogated. Gloves off. [Translated from Hebrew by Stephen Langfur. Hannah Friedman directs the Public Committee Against Torture In Israel. Reprinted from Challenge (PO Box 32107, Jerusalem 91320, Israel. email: chall@baraka.gn.apc.org.]

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