Samer Arbid, a suspect in the murder of Rina Shnerb, was arrested, interrogated and hospitalized in critical condition, though on Wednesday, a gradual improvement in his medical condition was reported. According to his lawyers, he was beaten by the soldiers who arrested him and then tortured during his interrogation in a way that caused bones to be broken in his chest and a loss of consciousness.
The initial explanation was that there was an urgent need to extract additional information from Arbid due to fears that he had planned additional terror attacks that might be on the verge of being committed, especially given that some of his partners in the murder hadn’t yet been arrested.
This explanation was meant to provide grounds for a claim of necessity, which is a fundamental condition for permitting the use of “special means” – that is, torture – while still staying within the limits imposed by the High Court of Justice on interrogations of this type.
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It’s still impossible to know whether this essential condition, necessity, actually existed. But even if it did, serious questions arise from this case regarding the interpretation that has been given to the possibility of using torture.
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Torture is forbidden by international conventions that Israel has signed. But for decades, the state has ignored these conventions and international law and allowed itself to use torture in investigations frequently, with no restrictions.
This system was curbed by the Landau Commission, which, in 1987, coined the term “moderate physical pressure” to define the limits of the permission to use force. This term was hemmed in by a series of rules and regulations that were meant to prevent broad, flexible interpretations of the need to use force and the way it may be used.
Then, in what has become known as the “torture ruling” of 1999, the High Court said that the use of force was forbidden under any circumstances. Nevertheless, it added, investigators could cite “the defense of necessity” to try to justify the use of torture after the fact.
But the loopholes left by the Landau Commission and the torture ruling have apparently allowed the Shin Bet to conduct interrogations that deviate from these limits. The fact that interrogation tactics remain hidden, given the absence of cameras or other forms of documentation, has frequently helped the Shin Bet avoid judicial and public criticism.
Moreover, quite aside from the legal issues, even limited permission to employ severe violence to produce confessions or information is controversial. Not only is such permission liable to encourage the use of violence when it isn’t necessary, but it’s hard to trust a confession given under severe physical pressure.
Consequently, Arbid’s case requires a meticulous, uncompromising investigation not only into the circumstances of his interrogation, but into the use of torture as a tactic. Such an investigation must also scrutinize the supervisory mechanisms, the procedures for granting permission to use force and the degree of compliance with the law. Finally, such an investigation mustn’t end with an internal inquiry by the Shin Bet; it must be transparent and credible.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.