Nearly 20 years after it banned torture, Israel’s High Court is finding new ways to justify using physical force in the interrogation of security suspects.
Israel’s High Court of Justice last week ruled that Israeli authorities’ torture of a Hamas suspect was not illegal and that the Shin Bet interrogators do not need to be prosecuted. The ruling also broadened and effectively removed the strict limitations imposed by a landmark decision by the same court nearly two decades ago, which carved out a “ticking bomb” exception to the prohibition on torture.
“The ruling shows that in the eyes of the High Court, physical abuse is a legitimate and perhaps even the preferable way of carrying out an interrogation in cases of national security,” said Itamar Mann, a law lecturer at Haifa University.
Shin Bet agents have for decades used torture, including moderate and severe physical and psychological abuse, to extract information from Palestinian suspects. The methods have ranged from violent shaking, beatings, sleep deprivation, long exposure to loud music, exposure to the elements, restraining suspects in painful positions for long periods, and covering suspects’ heads in foul-smelling sacks.
Israel ratified the UN Convention Against Torture in 1986, but never took the next step of actually outlawing the practice in Israeli law.
In September 1999, however, the High Court unanimously banned the use of physically abusive interrogation tactics. The ruling was widely viewed as a bold prohibition on torture and has been lauded and taught around the world. But in their historic decision, the justices also created a significant loop-hole to the prohibition: in the case of a “ticking bomb,” interrogators could avoid prosecution by invoking a necessity defense.
Twenty years later, it is clear just how much the Shin Bet has stretched that loophole. “The ruling could be seen an attempt to hide what the Shin Bet is actually doing,” added Mann.
Since 2001, when the Justice Ministry appointed a special investigator of torture allegations against the Shin Bet, PCATI and other organizations submitted over 1,100 complaints of torture. Of those, only one resulted in a criminal investigation, and it was not directly related to an interrogation.
The ruling also expanded the situations and...Read More