Opinion

Even When Thwarting Terrorism, There Are Lines That Must Not Be Crossed

As justice minister, I told Shin Bet trainees: Imagine that someone is filming you as you interrogate a suspect. Would you agree to show the film to your children? ■ Dan Meridor responds to Avigdor Feldman

Dan Meridor (file photo).
AP

Ex-Justice Minister Dan Meridor responds to Avigdor Feldman's article about the Shin Bet and torture:

I would like to say that, even though I never made this public, in my role as minister of justice (1988-1992), I waged an intensive campaign in regard to the Shin Bet security services modes of interrogation. To the best of my knowledge, no other justice minister, before or after me, did likewise.

I thought that it was my duty toward the law, morality and character of Israel to ensure that even for a noble cause – thwarting terrorism and protecting human life – there are boundaries that must not be crossed. I believed, and I still believe, in the indispensability of the directive that [then-Prime Minister] Menachem Begin gave to the head of the Shin Bet, Avraham Ahituv, in their first meeting, on June 29, 1977: no physical pressure (or: force) is to be used in Shin Bet interrogations, only the interrogators intelligence.

Even though the Shin Bet answers to the prime minister and not to the minister of justice, I decided that I was responsible for seeing to it that the judicial system, which I headed, would be involved, at its initiative, in the matter of Shin Bet interrogations, and would ensure the laws enforcement here, too. I used to say at the time that the states values are not determined in university lectures, but in the interrogation rooms. That is why I dealt with the subject in an ongoing manner.

I held many and frequent meetings with the head of the Shin Bet and with the agencys senior staff on this subject. Taking part with me in the meetings were senior officials of the Justice Ministry, including the state prosecutor, Dorit Beinisch, the assistant attorney general, Yehudit Karp, and others. We did not flee our responsibility: to back up the Shin Bet personnel in the lifesaving work they do, but at the same time to make sure they did not breach the law and did not resort to violence, certainly not torture.

It should be noted that I began my service as justice minister about a year after the Landau Commission report, which found that there were indeed unacceptable, infuriating modes of interrogation being employed, and also that the truth had been concealed from the judicial system. At my initiative, I gave talks to courses of Shin Bet interrogators and explained to them the prohibitions and their underlying rationale. I emphasized that this was not double talk. I remember suggesting to them the following test: Imagine that someone is filming you as you interrogate a suspect. Would you agree to show the film to your children at home? If not, dont do it. One cadet said to me: If we do what you say, there are liable to be more terrorist attacks. I replied: Im not sure of that, but even if you are right, when youre asked why you didnt use harsher methods in the interrogation, refer the questioners to me. I bear responsibility.

I didnt make do with holding meetings with the heads of the service and with the interrogations unit (headed by the late Haim Ben Ami) and with giving talks in courses of interrogators. I asked to visit the interrogation rooms and meet with detainees. The head of the service at the time, Jacob Perry, accompanied me on one such visit to the Shin Bet facility outside Ramallah, where I met with interrogators, perused the interrogation files and also commented on an entry [in the log] that left me with concerns that a prohibited method of interrogation had been used. During the visit I also spoke with detainees who had been interrogated in the facility.

The Landau report was submitted in late 1987. Attorney General Yosef Harish adopted it and confirmed to the interrogators that those who acted solely according to what the report permitted would not be indicted. From time to time, complaints were raised about the use of force and even of torture. Every complaint that reached me from private individuals or from organizations that deal with human rights, such as the Red Cross, Amnesty, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, BTselem and others, was immediately sent on for inquiry.

On at least one occasion I raised a suspicion (which came to my knowledge from reading a report published in Haaretz by Ari Shavit) in a meeting of the ministerial security committee that violence had been used against detainees in an interrogations facility in Gaza. The state prosecution, headed by Dorit Beinisch, dealt with this unceasingly.

In December 1989, the head of the service, Jacob Perry, reported that one of those being held in the Gaza facility – Khaled Sheikh Ali – had died during an interrogation. The state prosecution demanded that the person who had done it be found. The head of the service submitted the names of two interrogators. They were tried, convicted in district court of criminal negligence causing death and sentenced to six months in prison. Their lawyer informed me that he would ask for a pardon. I told him: Dont bother – I will oppose it. They will serve a prison term. Let it be clear that we mean what we say and these deeds will cease.

Since the convicted individuals were not spared prison, they asked to tell what really took place and related that they were not the only ones who acted this way. We held a meeting about this grave development, and in coordination with the state prosecution, Perry appointed a committee of inquiry headed by the assistant state prosecutor, Rachel Sukkar, to investigate the issue. The two other members were senior Shin Bet officials. The committee submitted a very grave report, which indicated – from the testimonies of Shin Bet personnel themselves – that two years after the Landau report, serious acts like these were still taking place in the Gaza facility and being concealed.

I took the report – the Sukkar report – to [former Supreme Court President] Moshe Landau at his home on Alharizi Street in Jerusalem. He read it in my presence, and his response was: I feel betrayed. When the Shin Bet personnel appeared before the commission, I believed them when they said that these things would cease completely. He himself met, at his request, with Prime Minister Shamir in order to apprise him of the gravity of the matter, in his view, and demanded that sharp measures be adopted.

I remember well a meeting that I convened in my bureau in the wake of the Sukkar report, with the participation of Attorney General Harish, State Prosecutor Beinisch, the assistant attorney general, Karp, and others, with the heads of the Shin Bet. We said harsh things there. Afterward, significant measures were taken in the Shin Bet.

It is, of course, not within the authority of the justice minister to decide who will stand trial, and I did not intervene in any specific case. Still, I remember well the considerable involvement of the state prosecution in such matters, and the activity it undertook with regard to putting people on criminal and disciplinary trial. To validate further the prohibition on torture of any kind, I brought for the governments ratification the UNs 1985 Convention Against Torture, which was indeed ratified by Israels government in 1991.

I could go on and on, but I will not do so here. The occupation with enforcing the law against those who held power in their hands was a central issue that I dealt with in the Ministry of Justice. The occupation of the ministry – the minister, the senior personnel and, mainly, the state prosecution – with enforcing the law in Shin Bet interrogations was, in my perception, our public duty. Coping with methods of interrogation against terrorism is difficult. Democracies – including the United States with its constitutional regime and Supreme Court – have failed in this (see, for example, the United States in Guantanamo and Britain in Northern Ireland). I am convinced that in my term as minister of justice we did our duty and brought about a significant improvement in this moral and judicial issue. At the same time, there is no doubt that we did not succeed in eradicating the phenomenon completely. The High Court of Justice ruling on torture did that 10 years later.

Dan Meridor is an attorney and politician whose long career includes tenures as cabinet secretary; member of Knesset; chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; justice, treasury and intelligence minister; and deputy prime minister.