The Electronic Intifada - 6 July 2011
Omar Alaaeddin, 25, a Palestinian from the village of al-Maasara, a day after his release by Israeli forces on 23 March 2010. He has been arrested and beaten for several hours. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)
Sleep-deprived and suffering from a broken leg, 16-year-old Muhammad Halabiyeh endured days of torture at the hands of Israeli soldiers and police officers, who punched him repeatedly in the face and abdomen, shoved needles into his hand and leg and threatened the Palestinian teenager with sexual abuse.
Arrested near his home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis in February 2010, Halabiyeh confessed after days of abuse and torture to the charge that he threw a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli army base. More than one year after his arrest, which was spent in Israeli custody, Halabiyeh was found guilty in an Israeli military court.
His conviction came despite the fact that the Israeli military judge in his case stated that she believed the teenager was tortured. However, the judge argued that there was no evidence that his confession was the direct result of the torture he endured. Halabiyeh’s sentencing hearing has now been postponed until 19 July.
“[The judge] said there’s no direct connection that he confessed later on in the police station because of this torture,” Sahar Francis, the director of Addameer, the Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, told The Electronic Intifada. Addameer represented Halabiyeh in his trial at the Ofer military court.
“She didn’t believe that he was threatened the whole way [to the police station]. He said in the court that he was [afraid of more torture], but she decided not to give much weight [to this],” Francis added.
Since Israel began occupying the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem in 1967, it is estimated that approximately 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel. This amounts to approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population, and 40 percent of the male Palestinian population, in the occupied Palestinian territories, according to Addameer.
Today, more than 5,600 Palestinian prisoners remain in Israeli jails, and more than 1,500 Israeli military orders continue to govern all aspects of life in the West Bank. In fact, the Israeli military courts system controls the trial, sentencing and imprisonment of Palestinian detainees. Notably, the principal court officials including the prosecutor and the judge are Israeli army officers — which means that the Israeli occupation army is both accuser and judge of Palestinians living under its control. Moreover, this system is reserved only for Palestinians; Israeli settlers living in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civil law and civil courts.
According to a 2007 report issued by Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, “of 9,123 cases concluded in the [Israeli] military courts in the year 2006, only in 23 cases - which constitute 0.29 percent of the rulings - was the defendant found to be entirely not guilty.”
While no specific figures are available, Francis explained that the use of torture against Palestinian detainees and prisoners is widespread and that often, Israeli soldiers use torture during an arrest - before the detainees are brought into the interrogation center - as a way to intimidate the detainees and coerce confessions from them later on.
“Especially in the case of juveniles, it’s threatening them before even coming to the interrogation so it will make it easier to collect their confessions. They will be really terrified. They humiliate them. They start to beat them and kick them and abuse them all the way to the detention center. It affects [the detainees’] confidence and the way they will treat the whole process of the interrogation later on,” Francis said.
Sleep deprivation, threats of sexual abuse and physical violence, prolonged periods spent in complete isolation, and the arrests of family members are some of the methods used to coerce confessions from Palestinian detainees, Francis explained. While most of the torture the Israeli authorities use is psychological in nature, she added that physical torture does take place as well.
“In some cases, they use electric shock. In some other cases, they close [their] eyes and tie [them] to the chair. They push back [their] head and then they bring a cup of water and they start to drop water on [their] face, giving a feeling like [they] can’t breathe,” she said. ”[Torture is] very common. It’s very common.”
Israel’s “ticking time bomb” loophole
The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for purposes that include obtaining information or a confession, punishing the detainee or a third person for something, and for the purpose of intimidation or coercion, among others.
Article 2 of the Convention states that a state must take the necessary measures to ensure that torture does not occur in any territory under its controls, and that the use of torture may not be justified under any circumstances, “whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency.”
Further, Article 12 states that, “each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.”
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, while more than seven hundred complaints alleging abuse of detainees by Israeli General Security Services (GSS) agents have been reported from 2001 to 2009, “the State Attorney’s Office did not order a criminal investigation into any of the complaints” (“Failure to investigate alleged cases of ill-treatment and torture”).
The GSS, also known as the Shin Bet or Shabak, according to its Hebrew acronym, conducts interrogations of Palestinian detainees. 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.
This caveat, otherwise known as “the necessity defense,” has been used to justify the use of physical force and torture by Israeli interrogators since the high court’s ruling. The GSS argues that its agents should be exempt from criminal prosecution during these types of situations due to Article 34K of Israel’s Penal Code, which states that “no person shall bear criminal responsibility for an act that was immediately necessary in order to save his own or another person’s life, freedom, bodily welfare or property from a real danger of severe injury, due to the conditions prevalent when the act was committed, there being no alternative but to commit the act.”
Still, while it should only be employed in extreme cases, human rights groups have criticized the “ticking time bomb” defense for its widespread and inappropriate use.
“In the few cases in which the Complaints Inspector found that [GSS] agents abused an interrogee, the State Attorney’s Office decided to close the file without ordering a criminal investigation, this on the tendentious grounds that the high court established, whereby in ‘ticking bomb’ cases the [GSS] interrogator may escape criminal responsibility under the ‘necessity defense,’” the B’Tselem report found.
According to a 2009 report released by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) titled “Accountability Denied: The Absence of Investigation and Punishment of Torture in Israel,” the State of Israel is not meeting its responsibilities under international law since it fails to hold accountable those responsible for torture or abuse.
“The mechanism for examining complaints does not exist in a vacuum. It is maintained alongside the systemic torture and abuse of Palestinian detainees, and alongside the silence, if not the actual support, of the legal system,” the report states.
“We believe that the State of Israel must meet standards of human dignity, justice, and equality of law and must respect its obligations under international law. A criminal investigation, with the attendant criminal and public ramifications, conveys a strong and clear message that all forms of torture and abuse are absolutely prohibited since they fatally injure human dignity and the human person. This is a message that must not be ambiguous,” the report adds.
Ending Israeli impunity
According to Addameer’s Sahar Francis, Palestinian detainees are hesitant to report instances of torture due to the fact that these claims are rarely investigated and virtually never result in criminal convictions or justice, and because they will be held in Israeli military detention while their claim is investigated.
“It’s very hard to say that you can reach justice in this [Israeli military court] system. And the case of Muhammad Halabiyeh is a very good example to see how the court always believes the soldiers and the police officers who collect the confessions and don’t trust what the detainees have to say,” Francis told The Electronic Intifada.
“Most of the cases, even if you exhaust the whole procedures, wouldn’t end up in favor of the detainees,” she added. “We can say that there’s more than 95 percent of conviction at the end, whether it’s through plea bargains or exhausting the system. Most of the prisoners prefer plea bargains because they don’t trust the system. Why waste the time and put all these efforts?”
Francis said that the issue of torture of Palestinians convicted in Israeli military courts is closely connected to the Israeli occupation, and can therefore only be solved by ending the Israeli occupation altogether.
“The solution for this is ending the occupation, putting an end to the occupation, which means Israel is not allowed to arrest Palestinians and prosecute them in their military courts. And they are then supposed to release all the Palestinian political prisoners from the Israeli prisons, where they are held illegally,” she said.
“What’s very important is to put an end to this impunity when it comes to torture of Palestinian political prisoners. This is a big demand of the Palestinian human rights NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], [and] the international community should find a way to put an end to the Israeli immunity in torture and not just in torture but all of the other violations of international law.”