The Central District Court is set to hand down a highly anticipated ruling Tuesday afternoon regarding the admissibility of confessions by two Jewish suspects in a deadly 2015 terror attack in the West Bank village of Duma, after the detainees said they were tortured by interrogators from the Shin Bet security services.
A decision to throw out the confessions would mark a significant blow for the prosecution, which is said to be under immense pressure to convict alleged assailants Amiram Ben-Uliel and an unnamed minor accomplice who were indicted in January 2016 for firebombing the home of the Dawabsha family on July 31, 2015.
The attack led to the immediate death of toddler Ali Saad Dawabsha and the subsequent deaths of parents Riham and Saad. Five-year-old Ahmed Dawabsha, Ali’s brother, underwent months of medical treatment for severe burns sustained in the attack.
The two suspects have claimed innocence, insisting they only confessed to the crime after being subjected to torture at the hands of Shin Bet interrogators.
In April, the Central District Attorney’s Office announced that it would avoid using confessions obtained from the suspects by way of “special means,” referring to confessions extracted under duress.
The prosecution is believed to possess additional evidence on which to base its indictments against the two suspects and to recognize that the testimony it obtained through torture may not be admissible.
The court has differentiated between confessions obtained in what is known as a “necessary interrogation” and those that are obtained in a typical interrogation. In the former, investigators are authorized to use enhanced methods against the suspects due to a “ticking time bomb scenario” in which authorities believe another attack might be imminent.
The confessions given by the two defendants during such a “necessary interrogation” are what the prosecution announced it would not require in order to prosecute.
However, the defense has argued that confessions given outside the “necessary interrogation” framework should also be dismissed because while the suspects may not have been tortured in real time into giving them, they feared the torture would continue if they did not talk.
The court will rule Tuesday on the admissibility of the confessions given outside the “necessary interrogation” framework.
The indictments against Ben-Uliel and the unnamed minor marked a key breakthrough in the case, which shocked Israelis and led to unprecedented measures against Jewish terror suspects, including a cabinet vote to extend counterterrorism practices such as detention without trial to Israeli citizens.
But the trial has also raised questions regarding the Shin Bet’s conduct over the years.
In recordings from Ben-Uliel released shortly after his indictment, he recalls being made to sit with his back at a 45-degree angle for long periods, as well as “threats, shouts, screams, beatings, slaps.”
He said eventually the pressure got to him and he said, “‘I’ll make something up for them so they’ll release me,’ and I said to them, ‘I’ll talk, I’ll talk.’
“I started making stuff up. A whole story, how I went and prepared and planned,” he said in the recording. “I told them I planned it with [name], and I met with him, we carried out reconnaissance and all sorts of things. Not exactly, but all sorts of things I understood from them [the interrogators],” he recalled.
The alleged abuses came after the Shin Bet obtained approval from then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein to classify Ben-Uliel as a “ticking time bomb,” allowing it to use certain kinds of torture on the grounds that authorities believed new attacks were being planned by his associates.
A defense establishment source with knowledge of the investigation told The Times of Israel that Ben-Uliel’s confession included details that were not released to the public and would only have been known by someone who was present at the scene of the crime.
Attorneys for the pair of suspects have said their clients were humiliated, spat on and even sexually harassed.
They have also claimed that the firebombing of the Dawabsha home had been part of an internal conflict between Duma residents, pointing to five other homes in the village that have been torched since the 2015 attack.
While the Shin Bet typically refrains from publicly commenting on such matters, the security service released a statement denying the defense team’s allegations.
“The aim of these lies is to tarnish the Shin Bet security service and disrupt the investigation,” it said. “Extreme right-wing activists and their lawyers are trying to divert public and legal attention away from the severe acts of terrorism carried out by the suspects.”
The statement did not address accusations made by Ben-Uliel in the recordings that he was tied up, beaten and sleep-deprived by interrogators.
In 1999, the High Court of Justice rejected the use of violent interrogation methods in the absence of a law regulating the matter.
In its decision, the court stated that interrogators are forbidden from using methods such as shaking, tying and sleep deprivation. However, the panel ruled that an interrogator prosecuted for torture could claim that he did so in order to save lives and would therefore be exempted from criminal liability.
Ahmed Dawabsha’s uncle Nasr, who has served as the lone survivor’s guardian since the attack, told The Times of Israel Tuesday that he has no faith in the Israeli legal system.
“Three years have passed and we are in court, while in any case where the defendant is Palestinian, the case is closed in a very short period,” he said.
“If the killers are acquitted, the Israeli judiciary will become accomplices to the murderers and give license to further kill innocent Palestinians.”