Israeli Court Blasts Shin Bet: Interrogation Tactics Led to False Confession, Imprisonment of Palestinian

'Shin Bet needs to take a good look at itself,' court says, explaining why it released Khalil Nimri, who spent two years behind bars due to mistaken identity

Khalil Nimri in court in Be'er Sheva on Nov. 9, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

An Israel judge ripped into the Shin Bet for its interrogation tactics, saying they could lead people to confess crimes they did not commit.

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A panel of Be'er Sheva District Court judges issued Monday the opinion blasting the security service as part of a ruling explaining their acquittal last month of a Palestinian terrorism suspect, Khalil Nimri. The court found that Nimri, who had been charged with planning an attack on Eilat hotel, had confessed under interrogation to acts that it was doubtful that he committed, the court found.

"The Shin Bet needs to take a good look at itself so that interrogation techniques, which do indeed sometimes uncover dangerous acts of terrorism, aren't also liable to induce innocent people to admit to acts that they did not commit," the judges wrote. "There is tangible concern that the defendant was arrested and spent two years in detention over no fault of his own."

Nimri was arrested about two years ago after a reception clerk at an Eilat hotel claimed that he had approached the reception desk and asked questions that aroused the clerk's suspicions. The questions related to ultra-Orthodox hotel guests, the clerk said. But several days later the clerk encountered another Palestinian, Ashraf Salaimeh, and realized that it was he and not Nimri who had approached the reception desk. The clerk then informed the police of his mistake.

Khalil Nimri's family in court in Be'er Sheva, Nov. 9, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

>> East Jerusalem man acquitted of planning bombing in Eilat because of mistaken identification <<

Salaimeh was arrested, but Nimri had already admitted under Shin Bet interrogation to having planned a terrorist attack on the hotel. Salaimeh and Nimri, who worked and lived in Eilat, were charged with conspiracy and assisting the enemy in wartime. They were accused of planning to plant explosives at Eilat's Rio Hotel a plan that, according to the indictment, was foiled thanks to the hotel staff's alertness.

The Yedioth Ahronoth daily published a report on the Tuesday detailing the judges' reasoning, a judicial opinion that was only issued subsequent to their announcement of Nimri's acquittal. The judges found that, while under interrogation, he had believed that the Shin Bet was threating his family and would prolong his interrogation until he confessed. The interrogator "taught the defendant [Nimri] that he needed to lie to satisfy the Shin Bet," the judges found.

For its part, the Shin Bet said the court's "decision and its reasoning are currently being studied by the relevant officials, including a possible appeal to the Supreme Court."

The Be'er Sheva panel of judges said they found Nimri's account rather strange. He had not been familiar with the Rio Hotel, even though he had told Shin Bet investigators that he had planned to carry out the attack there to target religious Jews. The judges also found that the investigators hadn't carried out proper identification procedures with regard to Nimri. They did not conduct a suspect lineup, didn't investigate his alibi and didn't examine security camera footage from the hotel.

A source familiar with Shin Bet investigation technique told Haaretz: "Shin Bet interrogations are carried out according to the law and court rulings and are subject to close oversight from the attorney general, the state prosecutor and the courts at various levels, including the Supreme Court. Every interrogation, including the case [of Nimri], is carried out with internal and external oversight all along the way."

"Shin Bet investigators seek to get at the truth and note instances in which it is the Shin Bet itself that had determined that a suspect has not been involved in a terrorist attack, even if he has confessed and even carried out a reenactment, as occurred in the case of the murder of a soldier, Oleg Sheichat in 2003," the source said. "Information obtained in Shin Bet interrogations makes it possible to foil and prevent lethal terrorist attacks and many Israelis owe their lives to their work."

In their decision, however, the Be'er Sheva judges stated: "Unfortunately, the Shin Bet didn't follow accepted police interrogation procedures, leading the accused to admit that he had visited the hotel."

Nimri's lawyer, Ester Bar-Zion, commented: "There are times in which even the best people fall into the trap of narrow thinking and vision and, without malice or negligence, ignore serious problems with the investigative material."

Criminal proceedings against Salaimeh are continuing. He has also confessed but has also retracted his confession several times.