Last week, I heard for the first time ever a real and penetrating session in the Supreme Court about torture. I have attended hearings of cases brought by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel for several years, and am always disappointed.
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Time after time, we file on behalf of detainees under investigation, who describe acts that violate international law, the 1999 High Court of Justice ruling forbidding torture and the attorney general’s guidelines.
The hearings are mostly brief and parse technical issues, like does the case merit a hearing or would it be preferable to submit a new petition worded differently. Have all the proceedings been utilized? The result is that the most burdensome question – should one agree to a situation in which Israel regularly tortures inmates illegally – is not addressed.
The special and almost unprecedented hearing in the High Court took place in a case, which the torture victim filed, that has gone on for a decade. The severe torture he was subjected to during his interrogation left him with significant neurological damage.
The High Court ruled in 1999 that torture is forbidden: “Indeed, violence directed at a suspect’s body or spirit does not constitute a reasonable investigation practice.”
In one fell swoop, this ruling sharply reduced the number of suspects who were interrogated. Until that point, the use of torture was — as Shin Bet security service officials have publicly acknowledged many times — routine. Arrests routinely led to harsh physical violence that also led to the death of suspects.
Despite the reduction in the phenomenon since the ruling, hundreds of suspects, nearly all Palestinians, have been tortured during interrogations. Shin Bet investigators continued using explicitly forbidden techniques, like shaking and the so-called “frog” crouch – methods that cause serious physical harm.
The Committee Against Torture has tried since 1986 to generate a genuine debate on this issue, on the definition of torture, the difference between torturing an adult and torturing a child, who should investigate suspicions of torture, how should such suspicions be properly investigated and primarily whether Israeli society wants to be a society that regularly uses torture.
In last week’s hearing, the Supreme Court justices deviated from their usual practice and, for the first time, debated the four components that enable one to describe the investigation as including torture. They heard the sides’ assertions about the extent of criminal responsibility and extent of suffering that the torture caused. They declared that torture is unacceptable in Israel.
They also brought state representatives who reiterated in public that torture is forbidden. Moreover, all sides in the hearing agreed that even the “necessary defense” claim – known as the “ticking time bomb” – cannot justify torture.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the statements heard in the court, both because over the last 18 years they have not been stated at this level and because the last few years have shown that the directives of both the High Court and the attorney general have not been implemented.
Now, when the state accepts these statements, it must take it upon itself to heed them. If people emerge from Shin Bet interrogations as broken wrecks, then they have undergone torture in every respect. Israel cannot boast about its lofty morals and continue to torture in the dead of the night.
Last week I saw that things can be different. There can be a deep, aggressive, penetrating discussion on an issue critical to Israel’s image. Justice Moshe Landau wrote back in 1965 that the methods of interrogation are “a reliable reflection of the nature of the entire regime.” It’s good that there is a debate about the reflection that we want to see in the mirror. It is very important that the things the judges say in Jerusalem are heard directly by Shin Bet investigators and cause them to immediately cease all torturous practices against any person.
Dr. Rachel Stroumsa is the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.