Israeli court bans violent Interrogation; Questioning methods have included shaking and sleep deprivation; Used on terror suspects; Secret police actions a topic of debate on human-rights grounds


JERUSALEM -- Israel's Supreme Court has banned the use of sleep deprivation, violent shaking and other "physical pressure" in interrogations, a historic ruling that outlaws the decades-long treatment of Palestinian suspects by the security police in their fight against terrorism.

While acknowledging Israel's "unceasing struggle for both its very existence and security," the nine-judge panel ruled yesterday that state investigators cannot use any means available to interrogate a suspected terrorist -- even if the suspect knows where a bomb is.

Interrogation methods must be reasonable, if not always painless, the court said.

"Violence directed at a suspect's body or spirit does not constitute a reasonable investigation practice " Chief Judge Aharon Barak wrote in the landmark 29-page court opinion.

"It is possible to conduct an effective investigation without resorting to violence."

The methods used by Israel's General Security Services have been a matter of public debate for years, as the country fought to contain terrorist attacks and suicide bombers.

Human rights groups said the practices amounted to legal torture, but officials called them "moderate physical pressure," and many Israelis considered them necessary to prevent terrorism.

In its court argument, the government said the GSS could use "moderate physical pressure as a last resort in order to prevent real injury to human life and well-being."

The Israeli Supreme Court, often criticized for being too liberal, recognized the dilemma in which the Middle East's only democracy finds itself -- how to protect its citizens in an era of violence while safeguarding an individual's rights.

"We are not isolated in an ivory tower," Barak wrote. "We live in this country. We are aware of the harsh reality of terrorism, in which we are at times immersed."

But if the state wants its security police "to utilize physical means" in interrogations, a law authorizing these methods must be enacted, he wrote.

Several Israeli lawmakers said they would do just that, setting the stage for another court battle that would test the legality of such a law.

The GSS, known in Hebrew as the Shaback, reports to Israel's prime minister. It operates in secret for the most part. For years, it was illegal to even publish the name of its director.

Last night, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a decorated commando and former army chief of staff who is not related to the chief judge, recognized the impact the court ruling would have on the fight against terrorism.

"On the face of it, the decision will make it very difficult for the Shaback. One must find a way that it will be possible to investigate cases of a ticking bomb in order to save human lives," a statement from the prime minister's office said.

International and local human rights groups applauded the Supreme Court ruling as a victory against torture and an institutionalized practice that employed doctors, lawyers and unnamed security agents.

"Finally, the High Court of Justice has said there are certain things in the name of security that cannot be justified," said Eitan Felner, the executive director of B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group that led the public campaign against the methods. "Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been subjected to these methods for the past 12 years."

"The use of torture doesn't stop terrorism, it promotes it," added Allegra Pacheco, a lead lawyer in the case who represents the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

But some lawmakers, former generals and victims of terror said the decision would restrict Israel's ability to identify terrorist groups, arrest their members and prevent deadly terror attacks. The court's ruling in the case came a day after two bombs exploded in the north of Israel; police said it was the work of suspected terrorists.

"It is very nice to have very liberal legislation. It is good in Scandinavia, in Western Europe or maybe North America," Ephraim Sneh, a former general who now serves as Israel's deputy defense minister. "But in this part of the world, where we fight so bitterly against terrorism, it is such a burden that it is almost irrelevant to the reality that we live in."

"I just wonder yesterday if we had caught one of these car drivers and we wanted to know if there is another car in Afula or Hadera [waiting to explode], whether it would have been forbidden to shake this gentleman," said Sneh.

The court case focused on the operations of the GSS, a once se- cret agency charged with protecting the internal security of the state. The GSS's unorthodox interrogation methods have been tolerated since they were first revealed in 1970.

In 1987, a special state commission permitted the GSS to use psychological means and a "moderate measure of physical pressure" to compel suspects of "hostile terrorist activity" to talk. Since then, at least 10 suspects have died after being subjected to these methods, according to B'Tselem. But a 1996 poll of Israelis commissioned by a human rights group found that 73 percent condoned some form of the treatment.

Nawwaf al-Qaysi, 24, a Palestinian from a refugee camp in Bethlehem, recalled his 90-day interrogation in the winter of 1997 as he recovered from a gunshot wound.

At one point, he said, he was forced to sit on a low chair, his arms cuffed behind his back and to the back of the chair. A hood, reeking of the smell of vomit, was placed over his head, he said.

"They kept me in [this position] continuously for 15 days," he told human rights investigators. "They did not let me sleep for even one hour."

After the 90 days, the GSS released al-Qaysi. He was never charged with a crime.

In the past, the Supreme Court heard individual pleas from detainees like a-Qaysi and issued temporary protections. But the court had avoided issuing a broad ruling on the legality of the interrogation techniques.

Ruling on a group of cases, the court outlawed three methods used by the GSS: shaking, forcing a suspect to crouch on the tips of his toes for five-minute intervals, and the "Shaback" position in which a suspect's hands are cuffed behind his back and tied to the back of a low chair.

Covering a suspect's head with a smelly sack and playing loud music in any of these prohibited situations is also banned, the court said.

But the court did offer protection for state investigators who use physical force in an attempt to prevent a terrorist attack. The so-called "necessity defense" may be invoked by an interrogator if charged with a crime, the court said.

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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