The Justice Ministry has initiated legislation against torture, Israeli representatives told a committee of the United Nations Convention Against Torture on Tuesday. Representatives of all the countries that are signatories to the convention were in Geneva Tuesday to present action taken in their countries against torture. Dr. Roi Schondorf, Israel’s deputy attorney general for international law, told members of the committee that senior officials in the Justice Ministry were working on a bill to specify torture as a breach of law.
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The law that is now being formulated must be approved by the attorney general and the justice minister. But it is already clear that there will be opposition to its having been presented in an international forum. However, although it is not yet clear whether the law will favor the suspect or the interrogator, the Public Committee Against Torture said it welcomed the move. “This is a very important step in recognizing an absolute ban on torture,” said Rachel Stroumsa, the organization’s director.
Every few years the committee of the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) meets and asks signatories to present steps their countries have taken against the practice. Justice Ministry representatives answered the committee’s questions for two hours Tuesday. The Israelis were asked about the Duma arson investigation, in which a suspected Jewish Israeli terrorist was indicted for the murder of three members of a West Bank Palestinian family, the interrogation of Palestinians, minors who committed terror attacks and the war on terror. They were also asked why hundreds of complaints of torture during interrogations by the Shin Bet security service had been filed in 2015 alone, and yet in that same year not one Shin Bet interrogator was questioned about the matter.
Schondorf told the UNCAT committee that in February 2013 a committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel submitted its recommendations after studying the way complaints were handled of breaches of the laws of warfare and international law by soldiers and other defense personnel. Schondorf said the report also involved monitoring interrogation of detainees and security prisoners by the Shin Bet, and determined that legislation should be examined on the matter.
After receiving the report, then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein instructed senior Justice Ministry officials, including Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri and Schondorf, to begin working on legislation against torture. The Israeli officials told the committee that they were now formulating a bill to criminalize torture.
The current directives of the attorney general are based on a High Court of Justice ruling from 1999, which struck down the use of violent interrogation, given that there is no law against torture in Israel. In their ruling in a petition brought by the Public Committee Against Torture, the court ruled that Shin Bet interrogators could not use methods such as shaking, binding or sleep deprivation against suspects. However, the court also stated that if an interrogator were indicted for using violence, he could claim he had done so to save lives and would then be absolved of criminal responsibility in keeping with a clause in the penal code.
After that ruling, then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein wrote a document clarifying to the Shin Bet in which cases interrogators would not be indicted for the use of torture.
The Justice Ministry representatives are to appear again Wednesday before the UNCAT committee to respond on a number of further issues.
From the point of view of the Justice Ministry, the fact that for the first time Israel is stating its willingness to enshrine the fight against torture in law is a dramatic step.