Fight Terror Legally

The Shin Bet cannot deny murder suspects basic human rights.

A court decided yesterday to release the right-wing activist Chaim Pearlman to house arrest, about a month after he was first taken into custody. When he was arrested, the Shin Bet security service announced with much fanfare that he was suspected of having murdered four Arabs 12 years ago. He was denied basic rights under interrogation. For 10 days the Shin Bet prevented Pearlman from seeing his lawyer, and he was allowed to do so only after the Supreme Court intervened.

Justice Edmond Levy harshly criticized the Shin Bet for not bringing Pearlman to a hearing. According to his lawyer, the Shin Bet also tortured Pearlman, shackling his hands and feet to a chair for 16 consecutive hours, humiliating him and denying him sleep.

The Shin Bet is charged with the task of preventing terrorist attacks, whether initiated by Palestinians or Jews, and bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks. When it comes to Jewish terrorism, the Shin Bet's performance leaves much to be desired. Twelve years passed until the suspect in the serial killings was arrested. The Shin Bet must make a greater effort to uproot Jewish terrorism, but the end cannot justify any means.

The serious allegations leveled at Pearlman, which were apparently based solely on his boasts to a Shin Bet informer, with no additional evidence, raise important questions about the Shin Bet's judgment. Before making and publicizing such accusations, it would be best to check if the evidence justifies them.

The Shin Bet's response to the decision to release Pearlman - that he remains a prime suspect - doesn't mean much now. On the other hand, the Shin Bet's assertion that the investigation had legal sanction requires the state prosecution to turn its scrutiny on itself and on its sometimes automatic support of the Shin Bet.

The Shin Bet must mend its ways. Pearlman is not the only suspect in recent months who was arrested on the basis of serious allegations that quickly turned out to be false. He was preceded by several Israeli Arab detainees; in those cases, a raft of allegations produced little. Before the Shin Bet arrests people and makes false accusations, it should investigate carefully. It should remember that not everything is permitted in interrogations, and that torture - whether psychological or physical - is always unacceptable, no matter the case or the suspect. Even the war against terror must be conducted using legal means.