Despite 750 abuse claims against the Shin Bet, state has yet to launch a criminal probe in over a decade

Justice Ministry says every complaint is checked carefully, and disciplinary action recommended in some cases

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

From left: Israel's State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman at the Knesset (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
From left: Israel's State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman at the Knesset (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The attorney general’s office, charged with overseeing the Shin Bet’s interrogative practices, has not launched a single criminal investigation into the internal security service’s behavior over the past 11 years, despite more than 750 formal complaints of torture and ill treatment.

“Having a Shin Bet officer brought to trial is [in the realm of] a dream,” said Irit Ballas, the head of the research department at the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. “They have not so much as opened a single criminal investigation into any of the complaints we brought before them.”

The Ministry of Justice did not dispute the facts of Ballas’s claim.

In a statement, the ministry confirmed that the attorney general is the only official who can authorize a criminal investigation into Shin Bet officers’ conduct and said that “each and every complaint is carefully and well-checked” by an internal investigations officer and “a senior attorney within the Justice Ministry.”

“As a result of the preliminary checks, no criminal investigations have been launched against any of the interrogators over the past several years,” the statement acknowledged. “Yet, as has been stated, this is only once each and every complaint has been checked, and only once the plaintifs have given their version of events, and the Shin Bet interrogators have been asked to respond to those claims, and all of the real-time documentation of the interrogation has been amassed.”

The Justice Ministry’s statement ended with the assertion that “disciplinary action” had been recommended in some cases and “operational lessons learned” in others.

For years, the Shin Bet’s interrogation practices went unquestioned by the law.

In 1999, the High Court of Justice examined the matter. The word “torture” is not mentioned in its ruling. Instead, the 11 justices of the Court spoke of “moderate physical pressure.” This pressure was applied in a variety of ways, the court said: by chaining suspects in unnatural positions for hours; by shaking them vigorously; by sleep deprivation; by placing wet sacks over their heads, playing loud music, and keeping them in the cold.

Despite recognizing the uncommon brutality of the terror attacks against Israel and the daunting challenges the Shin Bet has been asked to meet, Chief Justice Aharon Barak ruled, in a unanimous decision, that the Shin Bet “does not have the authority” to employ the techniques mentioned above.

The heart of the decision revolved around the “necessity defense.”

Simply put, the attorney general’s office and the Shin Bet argued that the interrogators were permitted to use these techniques because they were performed in order to prevent a greater crime.

The court ruled that the necessity defense holds only in “an improvised reaction to an unpredictable event,” and therefore cannot “constitute a source of authority” for interrogators. Still, this defense could allow interrogators, if brought to trial, to seek “refuge under its wings,” the court said, in a nod to the Shin Bet’s needs.

Ballas said in an interview that she doubted if the necessity defense was ever truly relevant to an interrogation, which is “methodical and planned by nature,” but said that she would feel justice was being done if an officer was brought to court and asked to explain the possibly extenuating circumstances under which torture or ill treatment was used.

That has almost never happened in Israel.

In 1984, when Shin Bet officers executed two terrorists in their custody and then lied to cover it up, going so far as to frame a senior IDF officer on the scene as responsible for the deaths, a presidential pardon was arranged — unprecedentedly — before criminal charges were filed.

In the case of Azzat Nafsu, a Circassian intelligence officer in the IDF, who was violently interrogated in 1981 and then found guilty of treason, the High Court of Justice found, in 1987, that Shin Bet officers had submitted false testimony in military court and employed unreasonable methods of interrogation. Nafsu pled guilty to a far lesser charge and was immediately released. Yet when he appealed to the High Court of Justice in 1988, seeking to compel the police to continue their investigation into the Shin Bet officers who had interrogated him, the appeal was denied. Instead a committee of inquiry was established and Nafsu, who filed a civil suit against the state, settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and a vow of silence.

Currently, Ballas said, there are several petitions pending in the High Court of Justice. Some relate to physical abuse; others to ill-treatment and mental anguish. They will likely be balled into one and treated in a single major ruling.

In December 2011, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel filed suit on behalf of 12 Palestinians and one Arab Israeli, all of whom claim to have been physically abused while under interrogation during the past five years.

Several weeks ago, the committee claimed in a newly published report that the Shin Bet, in violation of a 2008 law, regularly uses family members as leverage during interrogations. The accounts were based on complaints filed by interrogation victims.

One example of this, Ballas said, is when mothers are called in and told to bring clothes for their arrested sons. Once in the prison, they are garbed in an inmate’s suit and then paraded in front of the person who is being interrogated, who is told that his failure to cooperate has led to his mother’s arrest and that compliance will free her.

Other examples include threats against family members and the pitting of one sibling against another.

“In 1992 and again in 1994, the Knesset passed laws that put oversight of the Shin Bet in the hands of the attorney general,” Ballas said. “That was supposed to raise the level of supervision over the Shin Bet, but in essence the exact opposite of the legislature’s intent is what has happened.”

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