A West Bank military tribunal recently acquitted a Palestinian man who had been charged with several security offenses, after ruling that interrogators used prohibited practices including physical and psychological abuse and threats involving family members to force a confession from the suspect.
Acquittal in such circumstances is rare; Israeli military courts usually accept the testimony of Shin Bet security service agents, even in cases where no one disputes that confessions were obtained after the suspects were beaten.
Ayman Hamida, 37, from Izariya in East Jerusalem, was charged with carrying out a series of offenses over a period of several months. The most serious charge was shooting at a Border Police outpost near Jerusalem in September 2009.
Following his arrest, Hamida was brought to a Shin Bet facility. After being interrogated over a 40-day period by a team of agents, he was indicted for 17 crimes. The indictment was based in part on a confession obtained during interrogation.
Although Hamida was acquitted on many of the charges, he was convicted for one shooting incident in September 2009 after a co-conspirator implicated him. The co-conspirator is awaiting sentencing.
At his trial, in the Judea Military Court, Hamida asked to retract his confession. He said that in the course of the 40-day interrogation he was threatened with administrative detention, his brother was brought in for interrogation in an effort to force him to confess and Shin Bet officials threatened to bring his sister to the facility, as well.
Hamida told the court that agents were placed in his cell in order to get him to confess. He said they choked, beat and spit at him; they deprived him of food and took away his clothing when he refused to cooperate.
All of Hamida's Shin Bet interrogators testified at his trial. This week, judges Lt. Col. Zvi Lekach, Lt. Col Tal Band and Maj. Amir Dahan accepted all of the defense's claims and criticized the Shin Bet for its conduct.
"The testimony of the Shin Bet investigators led me to conclude that the investigation - its pace, the things said, the direct contact with the defendant's family, the veiled threat of administrative detention in the future - deprived the defendant of free will," Dahan wrote. "I understood from the interrogators' testimony that the interrogation was neither ideal nor respectful, and that harsh and problematic measures were used in a manner and frequency that deprived [Hamida] of his free will. This time [they went] over the top, and the defendant was forced into telling his interrogators anything in order to stop the interrogation, to end the veiled threats and to give him even the slightest hope," the judge said.
"The Shin Bet interrogators painted a harsh interrogation in overly 'rosy' colors," Lekach wrote, "that appeared not to match the reality of the situation." The judge focused his criticism on the agents' pressure on Hamida to confess and their apparent manipulation of his emotions and cultural mores, particularly with threats regarding the defendant's sister.
"The distress of someone who was interrogated for what added up to 40 days, during which he was presumably beaten, is very great," Lekach wrote. "When he hears that his sister is also being harmed by his refusal to cooperate with his interrogators, one can assume that he felt intolerable pressure. The court is cognizant of the patriarchal-protective way of life in Arab society, and of the difficult implications of keeping a woman in jail - for the family and for the honor of the men who are responsible for her welfare. For Hamida the pressure was intolerable. The main reason for his confession was his concern for his family," Lekach wrote.
"This is the tip of the iceberg of the harsh interrogation methods and the physical and emotional violence used against Palestinian detainees by the Shin Bet," Hamida's lawyer, Labib Habib, said to Haaretz. Habib noted that the High Court of Justice has outlawed the arrest of, or threats to arrest or hurt members of the detainee's family in the course of an interrogation.
In a response, the Shin Bet said its interrogations are carried out in compliance with the law and are monitored by the Justice Ministry and the judicial system. It is still studying the ruling and will consider appealing the acquittal, the agency said.
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