Jerusalem - In a case that has highlighted Israel’s abuse of Palestinian detainees, an Israeli military court recently acquitted a Palestinian man after it became clear that Israeli interrogators used excessive physical and psychological abuse as a way to coerce a confession from him.
Ayman Hamida, a resident of Ezariya in East Jerusalem, was accused of various security offences, including shooting at an Israeli border police outpost in September 2009. He was indicted for 17 offences, based largely on a confession obtained during a 40-day interrogation period.
In his testimony before an Israeli military court, however, Hamida asked to retract his confession because he said he was threatened with administrative detention, his family members were threatened, and he was beaten, spat on, choked and deprived of food by Israeli interrogators.
"They intimidated him, saying that they will bring his sister and interrogate her. Also, they arrested his brother and tried to use this in order to get a confession," explained Labib Habib, an attorney who, with other attorney Tarek Barghout, represented Hamida.
"After that, he was brought to someone who said he was a regular prisoner, but in fact, he was working with the Shabak (Israeli secret service). They hit him and said that he has to prove that he is a good guy, confessing what he did," Habib told IPS.
Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Israeli military court judge Maj. Amir Dahan wrote in his judgment that "the interrogation was neither ideal nor respectful, and that harsh and problematic measures were used in a manner and frequency that deprived (Hamida) of his free will.
"This time (they went) over the top, and the defendant was forced into telling his interrogators anything in order to stop the interrogation, to end the veiled threats and to give him even the slightest hope."
According to Bana Shouthry, legal director at the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), abuse of Palestinian detainees by the Israeli General Security Services (GSS), also known as the Shin Bet or Shabak, according to its Hebrew acronym, is widespread.
"The vast majority of Palestinians are interrogated by the security services. Their interrogation is being done while the security services use emotional and psychological pressure. While they are held incommunicado, they are held under very degrading, humiliating and inhuman conditions, with no access to natural light or even natural conditions," Shouthry told IPS.
In 1987, the Landau Commission — an Israeli governmental commission charged with examining the interrogation methods used by the GSS — found that the continued use of "physical force" in interrogations was acceptable.
Twelve years later, in 1999, the Israeli high court finally prohibited torture of any kind in Israel, and outlawed certain interrogation techniques. In "ticking time bomb" situations, however, the court found that the use of physical force could be justified.
"The High Court’s decision from 1999 didn’t limit it only to situations where someone is suspected to know about a bomb that will explode within a few hours, but also to people who may know about others, who know about others, who know about a bomb that could explode within weeks and months. So it’s a very wide definition," Shouthry explained.
"De facto, only 15 percent of PCATI’s cases are actually considered by the authorities as ticking bombs. All the others are tortured because this is the way the security services know how to get information from Palestinians."
She added that more troubling than the abuse itself is the total impunity under which it takes place; Israeli human rights groups have reported that while more than 700 complaints alleging abuse of detainees by GSS agents were reported from 2001 to 2009, the Israeli State Attorney’s Office hasn’t opened a single investigation.
"Systematically, all these complaints were closed without opening a criminal investigation based on an internal check done by the GSS themselves," Shouthry said.
"Israel fails to meet its obligation to investigate every single suspected use of torture. They apply a legal mechanism that leads to total impunity for those commit torture, and the vast majority of detainees don’t want to go to court or even submit a complaint because they know that this will not help them."
According to attorney Labib Habib, the case of Ayman Hamida will hopefully set a precedent whereby other Palestinian detainees will come forward to report abuse, and will also encourage Israeli courts to better protect their rights.
"It’s a very important precedent. I hope it will encourage others to talk, and for (Israeli courts and judges) to be courageous enough to say the truth and to make the right conclusions from this truth," Habib said.
"But even in (Hamida’s) case, when the court said the truth very loudly, we didn’t hear and we don’t know about any steps taken against the interrogators. Impunity is still going on, and more steps need to be taken in order to punish such measures and to make sure it doesn’t happen again."