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Hey Shin Bet, Can You Really Torture Someone ‘In a Statesmanlike Manner'?

Tal Steiner
Tal Steiner
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Samer Arbid is pictured on the left at Ofer Prison, February 2020.
Samer Arbid is pictured on the left at Ofer Prison, February 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Tal Steiner
Tal Steiner

Toward the end of September 2019, a Palestinian named Samer Arbid was hospitalized at Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus, with what seemed to be a heart attack. He arrived there unconscious with multiple broken ribs and kidney failure, straight from the interrogation room at Jerusalem’s Russian Compound police station. Two days earlier, when he was arrested by the security services, he was completely healthy.

Arbid was unconscious for two weeks, and when his condition stabilized, he was returned to the Shin Bet security service. He was ultimately indicted for involvement in the murder of Rina Shnerb; the trial is still in progress.

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What happened in the hours between his arrest and his arrival at the hospital in serious condition? To us, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, the answer is clear: His injuries and the condition in which he was brought to the hospital jibe with the “special investigative means” that the Shin Bet has used for years. These include the “banana” position in which the interrogee is tied to a chair with his body stretched backward and his hands and legs cuffed together, and other unnatural positions designed to cause extreme pain.

In fact, according to media reports, Shin Bet officials admitted that Arbid’s interrogation was one of “necessity” – the standard legal euphemism from state representatives to describe the use of physical tactics against interrogees who ostensibly are “ticking bombs.” Or in plain language, Arbid suffered torture that nearly killed him.

We immediately asked the attorney general to investigate. We were sure that this time – faced with such strong forensic evidence and given that someone nearly died during a Shin Bet interrogation – even the law enforcement agencies would understand that a red line had been crossed. They would understand that unless the people responsible were thoroughly investigated and put on trial, Israel would no longer be able to claim that it doesn’t use torture, as it has claimed repeatedly at both the High Court of Justice and international institutions.

Ostensibly, according to the decision the attorney general released Sunday (and improperly delivered to the media even before it was sent to Arbid’s lawyers at the Addameer rights group), the matter was taken seriously. The Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct carried out a criminal investigation in which the interrogators were questioned as suspects and an opinion was obtained from the Institute of Forensic Medicine.

These steps alone distinguish Arbid’s case from more than 1,300 previous complaints filed against Shin Bet interrogators. Almost all of those were closed after a “preliminary review”; such reviews almost automatically result in the case being closed.

But one piece of evidence that certainly wasn’t examined during the probe was footage from Arbid’s interrogation room. Unlike police interrogations of people suspected of serious crimes, Shin Bet interrogations aren’t videotaped. Closed-circuit cameras broadcast, albeit not continuously, from the Shin Bet’s interrogation rooms to a secret control center; that is supposed to provide interrogees with sufficient protection. The system certainly didn’t prove itself in Arbid’s case.

An Israeli actor demonstrates the "banana" method, one of several standard torture techniques reportedly used by the Shin Bet, Jerusalem, May 19, 1998,Credit: AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma

Either way, the final outcome of the investigation, which we were informed of on Monday, proved that we were wrong. This time, too, the decision wasn’t to indict anyone involved but to suffice with “internal lesson learning.”

This sends a resounding message to every Shin Bet interrogator: It doesn’t matter what you do during the interrogation, how much violence you use against the interrogee or what the results are, the system will defend you, give you de facto immunity from trial and even praise your integrity. This is what Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman did, saying to the interrogators “did their job professionally, according to the law and in a statesmanlike manner.” Is it really possible to torture someone in a statesmanlike manner?

We condemn Rina Shnerb’s brutal murder and, like all Israelis, share her family’s demand that the people responsible for her horrible death stand trial. At the same time, we insist – as do the international conventions Israel joined decades ago – that torture is always unconditionally forbidden. It corrupts our society’s humanity, and not only does it not increase any chance of justice or security, it thwarts it.

Attorney Tal Steiner is the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

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