SAMI ESMAIL, an American student of Palestinian descent, was arrested last December in te Tel Aviv airport as he flew in to see his dying father. He was accused of belonging to an extremist Palestinian organization and of having been trained as a terrorist during a trip to Libya in 1976. An Israeli court is soon to decide whether he is guilty as charged.

What makes his case especially noteworthy, however, is not so much its legal aspect as the fact that he has become the centerpiece of a spirited campaign meant to show that the Israelis violated his human rights by arresting and prosecuting him unjustifiably, and by obtaining a false confession from him by torture. As with Sami Esmail, the participants in this campaign have insisted, so with many other Palestinians who have come afoul of Israeli "justice." Not just persons with a special interest in the Palestinians but civil libertarians and citizens of general good will have become involved.

It is against this background that we read an account of Mr. Esmail's trial by two American law professors, Monroe Freedman and Alan Dershowitz, in The New York Times. The allegation that he had been falsely arrested, they found, rested on the contention, backed up by nine sworn affidavits, that he had not been in Libya in the period at issue. On the third day of his trial, Mr. Esmail admitted he had, in fact, been in Libya at that time. The allegation that he had signed a confession written for him in Hebrew (which he does not know) under torture foundered on his own testimony that he had written his own confession in English and that it was free and voluntary. His defense attorney, in her summation, abandoned allegations of physical torture, the law professors reported. They conclude that the Esmail case, "which began with loudly trumpeted charges of severe violations of human rights, is now turning upon extremely sophisticated issues of procedural due process, like the Miranda rule."

Torture in the world is widespread. It is often a response to, or a provocation of, terrorism. This is not the first time Israel has been accused of the practice. The burden of the charge is so damaging and powerful, however, that it practically invites abuse. To wage the fight against real cases of torture, it is important to discredit where possible those cases where the charge has been used to make propaganda. The Sami Esmail case seems to be in that class.