A Moderate Legal Euphemism

On September 6, 1999, the High Court of Justice ruled on one of the most sensitive issues it has considered - the legality of the Shin Bet security service's violent interrogation methods, euphemistically called "moderate physical pressure." The case was heard by nine justices, headed by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak.

The phrase "moderate physical pressure" came from a 1987 report by a committee investigating the practice. The committee, headed by Supreme Court president emeritus Moshe Landau, found the Shin Bet had lied to courts for years in denying it used torture, but accepted the Shin Bet's argument that physical pressure was necessary for efficient interrogation. The Landau Report recommended psychological pressure and "a moderate amount of physical pressure" against Palestinian detainees.

A secret appendix to the report detailed which practices were proscribed and which permitted. In the 12 years between the Landau Report and the High Court decision, most of which was during the first intifada, the Shin Bet developed its own way of using violence in interrogations, characterized by simplicity.

For instance, interrogators would shake the suspects, tightly handcuff them and deprive them of sleep. Interrogators would also leave suspects sitting on a small chair for several hours with one hand tied behind them, place an opaque bag over their heads and play loud music.

The High Court invalidated one after the other of the practices, ruling that they were not necessary for the interrogation and don't sufficiently preserve the dignity of the suspects.

However, the judges did allow for the legal concept of "necessary defense." Thus, if interrogators use violence to question suspects considered "ticking bombs," they would not be held criminally responsible.

At the same time, the High Court emphasized that recognition of "necessary defense" does not allow the Shin Bet to use the concept as a means of setting procedures for the use of violence.

Such procedures would be seen as an indication that the use of torture is planned and used in "regular" interrogations, not just for the ticking bombs.

Timeline of laws on torture

1984 - UN adopts Convention against Torture

1986 - Israel signs UN Convention against Torture

1987 - Landau Commission releases report allowing "moderate physical pressure" in Shin Bet interrogations

1991 - Israel ratifies UN Convention against Torture

1994 - Public Committee Against Torture in Israel petitions High Court of Justice to protest Shin Bet interrogation tactics

1995 - Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitions High Court demanding an end to vigorous shaking of prisoners

1999 - High Court rules that Shin Bet can't use violence in interrogations, but interrogators can use "necessary defense" argument if charged with using torture in "ticking bomb" situation

2002 - Knesset passes Shin Bet Law stating the agency's objectives but not referring to the use of torture.