Prison Tactics A Longtime Dilemma For Israel
In the early days, he said, crude physical and sexual abuse was commonplace. When he was first arrested, in 1983, an interrogator put on rubber gloves and squeezed his testicles until he cried out in pain. On another occasion Arafeh, who was suspected of involvement in the killings of alleged Palestinian collaborators, said he was kept in his underwear in a small, cold cell and splashed with water every few hours. Now the emphasis is on psychological pressure. During his arrest a year ago, Arafeh said, he was deprived of sleep for several days but not beaten.
There is a big difference between soldiers who make arrests and Shabak interrogators, Arafeh said. The soldiers are often casually cruel, he said, kicking and humiliating detainees in ways similar to the behavior reported at Abu Ghraib. But once the interrogators take over, treatment is far more calculated and professional.
"Their strategy is much improved," he said. "They give you food without salt that makes you weak, and they prevent you from sleeping. They're more clever and more experienced."
A turning point in Israel's treatment of detainees came in September 1999 when the Israeli Supreme Court, after a year and a half of deliberations, banned all forms of physical abuse. "Violence directed at a suspect's body or spirit does not constitute a reasonable investigation practice," the court declared.
The justices left open several loopholes. Interrogators who used force preemptively to prevent a terrorist attack could invoke the "defense of necessity" if faced with prosecution. The court also made allowances for "prolonged" interrogation, even if it involved sleep deprivation, and shackling, "but only for the purpose of preserving the investigator's safety."
Nonetheless, the ruling was a landmark. Shabak officials complained that the decision stripped them of the tools they needed to combat terrorism. An opposition lawmaker introduced a bill allowing interrogators to use force in "ticking bomb" cases. Barak supported the idea at first but later reached a compromise that gave the agency a bigger budget, a larger staff and more tools to help it solve cases without cracking heads.
Most of the specific methods used before the 1999 decision all but vanished after the ruling. Yet slowly but surely, human rights lawyers said, new techniques took their place.
The latest report by the committee against torture, covering the period from September 2001 to April 2003, alleged that detainees faced a new regime of sleep deprivation, shackling, slapping, hitting and kicking; exposure to extreme cold and heat; threats, curses and insults; and prolonged detention in subhuman conditions.
"Torture in Israel has once more become routine, carried out in an orderly and institutional fashion," concluded the report, which was based on 80 affidavits and court cases.
The committee accused the Israeli legal system of effectively sanctioning torture by routinely rejecting petitions seeking to grant detainees access to lawyers. Not one Shabak interrogator has been prosecuted despite hundreds of allegations, the report said.
In retrospect, said Habib Labib, an Israeli Arab lawyer who has handled dozens of security cases, the Supreme Court decision was a brief, shining moment that quickly faded. "It's like many things in this country," he said. "The theory is one thing, but on the ground things are done differently."
The case of Anan Labadeh, 31, became a cause célèbre because he is a paraplegic who has used a wheelchair since he fell from a third-story balcony while being chased by Israeli soldiers during a stone-throwing incident in the late 1980s. Labadeh was arrested in February of last year in his home town of Nablus on suspicion of helping militants who had set up a network of suicide bomb factories in the city. He was held for a month and released without being charged.
Labadeh said he was routinely punched and kicked by the soldiers who escorted him to a military detention center at nearby Hawara and then by other soldiers at the center itself over three days. He said he was blindfolded, denied food and water, left outside in the rain and cold, deprived of sleep and forced to urinate and defecate in his clothing.
"I was exhausted," he recalled. "Time became irrelevant. In the second day, it continued to rain and I couldn't tell if it was morning or afternoon."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company