Soldiers detain a Palestinian teenager in Hebron, April 2010
Soldiers detain a Palestinian teenager in Hebron, April 2010 Photo by Ma'an
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The way the army and police treat Palestinian minors arrested in the West Bank is the focus of complaints filed recently with both Israeli legal authorities and the United Nations.

The Palestinian branch of Defence for Children International (DCI ) has taken affidavits from dozens of minors who have been arrested. According to DCI-Palestine Section, the minors' testimonies describe a policy of routine and painful abuse, involving various forms of physical and psychological pressure, in order to extract confessions from minors in custody.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Yesh Din, two Israeli rights groups, say the provisions of the relevant military laws play a major role in the abuse perpetrated on imprisoned Palestinian minors. Both groups sent a letter to Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit in June with recommendations for changes in this law.

On August 15, DCI and an Israeli organization, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, filed two complaints alleging cruelty and sexual abuse of A.M., a 15-year-old from the village of Beit Ummar, near Hebron. A.M. was arrested by soldiers on May 26. He was questioned and held for five days, then released after he admitted to having thrown stones. His testimony was reported by Haaretz on June 10.

During A.M.'s remand hearing on May 30, attorney Iyad Misk claimed the teenager had been both sexually and physically abused.

The judge, Lt. Col. Avshalom Meushar, responded that "there was no evidence in the [case] file" to support this claim. "The substance of the confession made by the suspect, and the detailed nature of his answers, constitute evidence that the answers he gave were not provided under pressure or torture, but of his own free will," the judge added.

The teen claimed that at the time of his arrest and while he was being transported to the Etzion lock-up, the soldiers hurt him in various ways. He also said his confession to the police interrogator was extracted by torture and sexual threats.

A spokesman for the police's Shai (Samaria and Judea ) District told Haaretz at the time that the minor's allegations conflicted with the evidence in his case file. During his testimony to the police investigator, the spokesman said, the minor did not complain that any violence had been used against him.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said at the time that an investigation would be launched into the soldiers' conduct. Two months after the report in Haaretz, the Military Advocate General's Office finally sought testimony from A.M. But the meeting, scheduled for this week, did not take place, because the MAG representative refused Misk's request that the boy's testimony be given with his attorney present.

In their letter of complaint to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and attorney Herzl Sbiro, who heads the Justice Ministry department responsible for investigating police misconduct, DCI and the Public Committee Against Torture asked for a criminal investigation to be launched against the person who questioned A.M. The organizations wrote that A.M. had told them the investigator attached an electric cable to the boy's genitals and threatened to give him an electric shock unless he confessed to throwing stones.

The two groups also wrote to Lt. Col. Sigal Mishal Shehori, who is in charge of operational affairs for MAG. In that letter, they demanded a criminal investigation into the conduct of the officers and soldiers involved in A.M.'s arrest. A.M. said the soldiers abused and laughed at him while he was handcuffed in a painful position.

"Many complaints are received by the Committee [Against Torture] regarding abuse by soldiers and violence against Palestinian prisoners," the letter said. "This suggests the existence of a serious and widespread practice of violence and abuse of Palestinian prisoners by soldiers."

"This violent and systematic behavior was described extensively in a report published by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel more than two years ago ... to show you that a clear policy to contain the phenomenon of abuse of prisoners by IDF soldiers must be instituted," it added.

In both letters, the authors asked that an attorney be allowed to be present while giving testimony to MAG or Justice Ministry investigators, as it is natural for minors to feel frightened and threatened by interrogators who are part of the same military system that arrested them.

Meanwhile, on August 3, DCI sent details on the case of S.A., another 15-year-old from Beit Ummar, to the UN special rapporteur on torture.

Both the teenager and soldiers who witnessed the incident say he was used as a human shield when security forces entered his village on April 16, at a time when an event was taking place in the village to mark Palestinian Prisoner Day.

The soldiers allegedly forced the teenager to march in front of them so they would not be hit by stones thrown by local youths.

S.A. said the soldiers demanded that he confess to having thrown stones, beat him and forced him to drink tainted water that made him vomit. The story was reported by the Palestinian news agency Maan, which also reported that the IDF spokesman had said the case would be investigated.

Since September 2009, DCI has given the UN details of more than 100 cases in which the military authorities allegedly abused minors who were held in detention.

Many of the Palestinian minors are brought before a military judge when they are already scared and exhausted as a result their incarceration, often after having been arrested in the middle of the night. They are then tried on the basis of a military law that, even after it was slightly changed last year, "seriously violates the rights of minors and contravenes the protection they must be given in criminal proceedings," according to ACRI and Yesh Din.

In a June 15 letter to the MAG's office, they requested certain changes to improve the situation, including treating Palestinians as minors until the age of 18 (as Israelis are ) rather than 16, and refraining from imprisoning Palestinians under the age of 14.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said in response that after S.A. and A.M. are questioned by the Military Police, the findings will be delivered to the military advocate general. ACRI's request was received by the MAG on August 16, it added, and will studied thoroughly.

The military prosecution has recently received a number of requests relating to the legal status of minors held in West Bank military courts, the statement continued, and "these requests are currently being examined by all the relevant bodies, including the Justice Ministry."