A report released Sunday by two human rights organizations charges that the Shin Bet security service is employing "irregular" interrogation methods including physical pressure and torture, despite High Court rulings barring such practices.

The joint report by B'Tselem and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, was based on testimony of 73 prisoners arrested between July 2005 and March 2006. The report states that "special interrogation methods" which are considered to be torture are not employed frequently, but are used according to standing regulations.

According to the report, the physical abuse includes beating, painful binding, back bending, body stretching and prolonged sleep deprivation. The two groups say that these methods constitute torture under international law.

The report states that the methods are used to break the spirits of the prisoners under questioning, and are alleged to violate High Court rulings governing the conduct of interrogations.

A range of other practices that are aimed at breaking the interrogated prisoners' spirits are employed routinely, and may degenerate into torture, the report continues.

The authors of the report severely criticize the State Prosecutor's Office and the courts for allegedly allowing these practices to be used.

A 1999 High Court ruling declared an absolute ban on the use of torture during interrogation. But the court allowed use of methods to create pressure or discomfort as part of the questioning, but not with the aim of breaking the spirit of those under interrogation.

An exception was also made in cases defined as "ticking bombs," in which interrogation could prevent a terror attack planned to take place immediately. Under these circumstances, disciplinary steps would not be taken against interrogators who used forms of torture.

The Justice Ministry, which oversees investigations of security services, said in response to the report that the Shin Bet investigations are performed in accordance with the law.

"The report is fraught with mistakes, groundless claims and inaccuracies," the ministry said, adding that it was "based on unrepresentative examples chosen in a tendentious way to distort the existing reality."

Decrease in incidents Since the High Court ruling was announced, the number and severity of torture incidents has significantly decreased. The writers of the report identified seven 'special' kinds of torture used in cases where fast divulsion of information is desired.

These were: sleep deprivation for over 24 hours (15 out of 73 suspects reported this), 'invisible' blows, or blows that do not leave a mark (17 cases), painful tightening of handcuffs (five cases), body stretching with hands tied to chair (six cases), turning of the head sideways or backwards while holding chin in place (eight cases), 'frog posture' ? shoving subjects while forcing them to crouch on the tips of their toes (three cases), 'banana posture' ? bending subjects' backs into an arch (five cases).

"These practices are clearly classified as torture under International Law, and are neither common nor negligible," the report states.

It identifies seven further methods which are commonly practiced, and may be classified as torture. These were isolation from the outside world including lawyers or the Red Cross, psychological and physical pressure exerted through conditions like solitary confinement, lack of exercise, sleep and food deprivation, shackling subjects to their chairs, swearing and insults, nude searches, threats of torture and arrest of family members, and planting of 'friendly' prisoners in detainees' cells.

The report clarifies that the last method is legitimate, but is dependant on use of more abusive practices.

According to the report, Shin Bet interrogators are supported by other authorities in Israel . "Shin Bet and soldiers do not operate in a vacuum, they are part of a system. The situation described in this document could not have come about without the support of other bodies responsible for implementing the law in Israel."

Despite over 500 complaints of abuse made to the attorney's office since 2001, no criminal investigation was launched, the groups stated. They said that this was because complaints are investigated by a member of Shin Bet, who is subordinate to the organization's head and not to an independent body.

Harsh criticism was also directed at the High Court in the report, which it said gives the seal of approval to decrees which make it possible to prevent detainees access to legal representation. Hundreds of petitions have been made on this subject, and none of them has been followed up, it said.

The report put forward various proposals. It recommended that the Shin Bet be ordered to cease interrogation practices which 'aim to damage the dignity or physical wellbeing of detainees'; that legislation be introduced prohibiting the use of torture and abuse, and that will limit 'protection of interests'; that an independent body is established to investigate complaints made by detainees; that Shin Bet interrogations be videotaped and that interrogation premises be subject to inspection by United Nations officials.l

It also backed repeal of the military decree which allows the Shin Bet to prevent detainees from meeting legal professionals. The report advises that the same laws be applied to Palestinian detainees as for Israelis, and it urges that those who allegedly abused the rights of Palestinian prisoners be brought to justice.