Still the Same Shin Bet

The 1980s are over, and yet the torture continues to this day - as does the culture that permits lying to judges and to the public in the name of 'security.'

The disclosure of transcripts from clandestine meetings held in March 1986, between three high-ranking Shin Bet security-service officials and then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir (reported by Gidi Weitz in Haaretz English Edition on September 27 ), has brought the story of the Bus 300 affair back into the headlines.

Over 27 years have passed since Shin Bet officer Ehud Yatom murdered the two terrorists who hijacked the bus. He subsequently confessed, in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth (which he later disavowed), that, "On the way, I received an order from [Shin Bet Chief] Avraham Shalom to kill the men, so I killed them." With the refutation of the official version of events, the publication of a photo of one of the terrorists while still alive, and the rumors about the manner in which the Shin Bet operates, a systematic cover-up of the murder was put into place. This effort succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of two investigative committees (led by Meir Zorea and Yona Baltman, respectively ) that attempted to study the circumstances of the deaths of the hijacker terrorists.

Once the cover story was blown, it emerged that some of the witnesses who were subpoenaed by the committees asserted that the "liquidation" and the false testimony were carried out in accordance with norms, according to which the Shin Bet often tortured suspects under interrogation and then systematically denied that behavior in the courts.

When stories about false testimony, attempts to deceive the committees and other deviant Shin Bet activities became public knowledge, there was a loud outcry. However, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin (the prime minister and defense minister, respectively, in 1986 ) and Yitzhak Shamir (prime minister at the time of the murders ) elected to protect the Shin Bet officials, and Zamir, the attorney general who wished to investigate the affair, was dismissed. Immunity and presidential pardons prior to trial were also arranged for those who participated in the murder and the false testimony.

The Landau Commission, which was set up to examine Shin Bet practices in the wake of this and other affairs, also revealed that agency officials had systematically lied to the courts over the course of many years. In its final report, the commission noted, "Investigators have the feeling that their actions not only have the backing of their superiors, but also that parties outside the service knew of them and acquiesced to them. Based on what was claimed before the committee, these parties included the civil and military prosecution establishments, the courts and the political echelon."

The 1980s are over, and yet the torture continues to this day, as does the culture that permits lying to judges and to the public in the name of "security." The same culture of fabrication and the same sense of immunity remain in place. Only the style of institutional backing and cover-up has changed.

Since 2001, over 700 complaints against Shin Bet interrogators, involving suspicions of torturing investigation subjects, have been submitted to the attorney general - but not a single criminal investigation was launched in response. Such complaints are referred by the attorney general for examination by the "inspector for complaints by investigation subjects," a position filled by a Shin Bet official. Unsurprisingly, the people who have filled this position in the past decade "investigated and found" that all of the complaints about torture were submitted too late, or were incorrect, or that the actions of the investigators were justified.

These "investigation" reports were then submitted to the official in the State Prosecutor's Office who oversees the Shin Bet inspector. He in turn certified the inspector's reports, which in turn received the authorization of the attorney general, in every single case. The backing granted by the attorney general has led to a situation in which, since 2001, no criminal investigations have been initiated by the police internal-affairs division, in the Ministry of Justice, which looks into complaints against law-enforcement officers. In effect, the attorney general has become the roadblock that bars investigation of complaints of torture by the Shin Bet.

Even when a complaint about Shin Bet torture is raised in court, the veracity of the "memorandum" (a binding legal document ) of the suspect's interrogation - on which his conviction is to a certain degree based - is partial at best. Apparently, without the knowledge of the courts, or without their having expressed any interest in the matter, a double system of recording exists in regard to actions taken in the Shin Bet's interrogation rooms. That is, there are two versions of memoranda that are compiled following an interrogation - one internal, for the eyes of the Shin Bet only, and the other "clean," intended for the police and the courts.

Today, as in those days, the immunity offered to Shin Bet interrogators remains absolute, even if they are torturing their subjects. Similarly, the truth about what is done inside the service's interrogation rooms to thousands of security interrogation subjects is still relative, as in those days.

Dr. Ishai Menuchin is the executive director of the Public Committee against Torture in Israel and chairperson of the Israeli section of Amnesty International.