November 9, 2006
By Nir Hasson, Haaretz Correspondent
Twenty-four hours before the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit, Israel Defense Forces soldiers broke into the home of Mustafa Abu Ma’amar in Rafah. Special forces soldiers arrested him and his brother in their respective homes.
A few weeks later, Abu Ma’amar told an attorney for the Public Committee Against Torture: “One or two days later (I discovered afterward that it was the same morning the soldier had been kidnapped), three interrogators came to where I was held at 6 A.M. [approx. one hour after the abduction – N.H.]. They didn’t ask me anything, just started kicking and hitting me while an interrogator named Moti grabbed me by the neck and throttled me until I thought I was going to die. The other two grabbed me and forcibly removed me.”
The interrogators later used the “exercise technique,” as Abu Ma’amar calls it. “They forced me to hold my legs to the chair legs, with the back of the chair to my right and nothing supporting my back. They pushed my back backwards and told me to ‘exercise.’ It made my stomach muscles cramp up and caused unbearable pain,” Abu Ma’amar explained.
The interrogators asked about the tunnels that he had helped dig, “while cursing me and my mother and father and threatening to demolish my house if I didn’t cooperate. They also told me they had arrested my brother and were torturing him.”
The Shin Bet interrogators them told him to stand on his toes and then “bend my legs and bring the lower part of my body downward …. It’s very difficult and painful. They forced me to stand like that for hours on end, and each time I brought my foot to the floor or moved up or down I got hit,” Abu Ma’amar wrote in his statement.
Abu Ma’amar’s statement is one of many complaints of torture made by Palestinian detainees against Shin Bet agents. The PCAT claims the security agency’s techniques are creeping back toward those used before 1999, when the High Court of Justice banned torture.
In Abu Ma’amar’s case, the Shin Bet might be able to claim that he was a clear case of a “ticking bomb,” since according to his indictment he had a (very small) part in planning the abduction, and his interrogation might have helpful for locating Shalit. Abu Ma’amar claims his torture began before the abduction and continued after it was obvious he had no information about Shalit’s location.
According to attorney Leah Tsemel, whose clients include Abu Ma’amar, Shin Bet agents use torture in about 20 percent of their cases. In the remainder, more sophisticated interrogation techniques are employed, involving use of stool pigeons, rewards and threats.
In the past year alone, about 40 allegations of serious torture of Palestinians have been submitted to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. The Executive Director of PCAT, Hannah Friedman, stresses that the organization thoroughly examines the credibility of each complaint, often interviewing the detainees three times. Mazuz has not deemed any of the complaints as warranting a criminal investigation against the interrogators.
Each complaint is handled the same way. It is passed on to a Shin Bet employee who works in concert with the State Prosecutor’s Office, and who eventually issues a letter stating that he met with both the detainee and the interrogators. After that, one of two possible responses to the complaint are issued.
The first is that the complaint was shown to be unsubstantiated. The second does not deny the facts of the case but justifies the actions with a standard formula: “An examination showed that Mr. … was detained for questioning due to a serious suspicion, based on credible information, that he was ostensibly involved in or was an accessory to carrying out major terror activities that were liable to have been carried out in a very short time frame and which could have hurt or threatened human life.” In plain English, a “ticking bomb.”
PCAT officials say the Shin Bet should emulate the police and make the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department (PID) responsible for investigating its conduct, and are considering a High Court petition on the matter.
The Shin Bet confirmed that no criminal investigation has been launched against one of its agents for 18 months, but officials say that the complaints have resulted in disciplinary action against a number of agents.
Among the interrogation techniques described by recent detainees are being forced to maintain painful, cramped positions for long periods of time, positions whose regular use prior to 1999 earned them nicknames such as the “banana,” “half-banana” and “frog.” Detainees also complained about the use of painful wrist restraints, sleep deprivation and severe shaking as well as of being slapped and punched.
In one extreme case, a detainee claimed that an interrogator known to him as Captain Daniel used various objects to rape him anally while the detainee was in restraints.
The Shin Bet issued the following response, in part: “It is regrettable that the Public Committee Against Torture misses no opportunity to attack the Shin Bet’s investigators, who work day and night to prevent terror and save lives, using claims that in most cases are baseless. Every complaint related to terror investigations is examined and checked thoroughly under the supervision of the State Prosecutor. In more than a few cases, the complaints submitted via the committee were not confirmed by those in whose names they were ostensibly submitted.”
The attorney general’s office responded as follows: “All complaints are examined very thoroughly by the [Shin Bet complaint handler] before being submitted, with no exceptions, to a thorough examination on the part of the senior prosecutor who is in charge of that handler. Some of the complaints are found to be baseless and others refer to events covered by the necessity defense. In certain cases, the examination leads to a change in procedures. In a few cases, when it is determined that a violation of procedures has taken place, a decision is taken to initiate a disciplinary or criminal procedure.”