Earlier this month something happened quietly in Israel, something that didn’t make headlines but which confirmed what we already knew: The Shin Bet security service can operate with complete impunity, no matter what its people do. The first criminal investigation of Shin Bet agents ever ordered by the Justice Ministry was closed without fanfare and without any indictments, even though the ugly deeds were witnessed by people other than the victim – soldiers, in this case. Even though this sick act was a vaginal and anal search – twice in each orifice. Even then there is no price to pay.
The incident took place in 2015, during the nighttime arrest of a Palestinian woman suspected of abetting terror. After her arrest, a Shin Bet agent who was at the scene ordered the search of her orifices. Two female soldiers took her aside, undressed her, and each took a turn sticking their fingers in her vagina and anus. Nothing was found. In the end the woman was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for minor crimes.
To understand how enormously scandalous this is, one must know the background: The Justice Ministry has a department for checking complaints of those who are questioned by the Shin Bet, known by its Hebrew acronym, Mavtan. Since it was set up in 2001, the department has received 1,300 complaints, which it examined to see if there was behavior by agents that justifies a criminal investigation.
The results of Mavtan’s work are no less than jaw-dropping. All those hundreds of complaints that have accumulated since 2001 have resulted in only two recommendations for a criminal probe: The incident described above, and a case in which interrogators nearly killed a murder suspect,Samer Arbid (that investigation was also closed earlier this year).
Now that both cases have been closed, the Justice Ministry has set a new world record for the ratio between complaints and indictments; zero indictments, zero prosecutions. A big, fat zero. Some 1,300 people complained that they’d suffered torture under interrogation, but none of them was found worthy of having justice done.
So what exactly does the Justice Ministry do with hundreds of complaints? Generally they drag out the investigation for years, without going into depth or pressuring those involved, and then they just close the complaint. Yup, all the threats, the painful positions they are kept in for long periods of time, the psychological torture, the questioning for days on end with no rest, the sexual harassment – all those methods that we hear about daily in the office of the Public Committee Against Torture, that leave permanent scars on people’s souls – simply didn’t happen from the perspective of the agency meant to protect the rights of those questioned.
For those of us who are making an effort to assure due process for detainees, this criminal investigation was a spark in the dark; a grain of hope that maybe those in the Justice Ministry would seek truth and justice this time, and not simply serve as a fig leaf for the Shin Bet’s shame. But the closing of the case, like the closing of the case against those who had tortured Samer Arbid, dashed that hope for good.
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Most Shin Bet interrogations take place in the shadows, with only the detainee and the interrogators knowing what really happened. The only trace left is the memorandum, a page on which the investigator scribbles a laconic summary of the questioning. Thus, a day-long interrogation is summed up in a few pages, which contain numerous references to acts like, “I asked the detainee how he was feeling,” but in which you will never read about being forced into positions that destroy one’s back, sexual threats and other violent methods. Any challenge almost always ends up being the word of the agent against the word of the detainee. And when that happens, guess who Mavtan chooses to believe?
The case of the woman whose private parts were searched was exceptional because the act took place during her arrest, and not in the Shin Bet basements, and it was witnessed by both male and female soldiers. Moreover, the former head of Mavtan herself urged the woman to file a complaint. Yet even so, the Justice Ministry wouldn’t prosecute because of a “deficient evidentiary basis” including the fact that the three Shin Bet agents who were questioned in the case each claimed the other was responsible, so there was no way to determine which of them actually was.
This is reminiscent of what happened in another well-known case, the 1984 Bus 300 affair, in which Shin Bet agents executed two Palestinian bus hijackers after they’d been captured. Then, too, each agent accused his fellow so that he wouldn’t be held responsible. The Bus 300 affair exposed the Shin Bet’s culture of lies and cover-ups, and this sexual search reminds us that this culture still flourishes. Because when we stay silent for so long about torture and humiliation, it’s only natural that the moral standards of those involved will continue to deteriorate.
Tali Shamir is the spokesperson for the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.