A court on Tuesday threw out a confession given by a teenage accomplice accused of involvement in the deadly 2015 firebombing of a Palestinian home in the West Bank town of Duma, saying in a dramatic ruling that the statement had been given under duress.
However, a confession given by primary suspect Amiram Ben-Uliel was cleared for use after judges determined that enough time had passed between when he was tortured and when he admitted to the crime.
The decision creates a major hurdle for the prosecution, which may now need to throw out the case against the unnamed minor accused of helping plan the firebombing of the Dawabsha family home on July 31, 2015, which killed toddler Ali Saad Dawabsha and parents Riham and Saad Dawabsha.
Another son, Ahmed Dawabsha, who was 5 at the time, underwent months of treatment for severe burns sustained in the attack.
The minor and Amiram Ben-Uliel, charged last year with carrying out the attack, 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 indictment against Ben-Uliel tying him to the Duma case. The minor’s admissible statements only refer to other incidents, which he still may face prosecution for.
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.
However, the court ruled those statements inadmissible.
“These measures severely violated the defendants’ fundamental right to preserve the integrity of the body, soul, and dignity of the accused,” wrote judges Ruth Lorch, Tzvi Dotan, and Devorah Atar. “The use of special means (torture)… whether or not it is during a necessary interrogation is not valid.”
The judges also disqualified a confession given by Ben-Uliel shortly after undergoing “necessary interrogation” torture. However, they ruled that a later admission regarding his execution of the attack to be valid for use in the case against him.
“These were given willingly by the defendant,” the court ruled, in a substantial blow to the primary suspect.
The defense had argued that confessions given while not under duress should also be dismissed because while the suspects may not have been tortured in real time into giving the statements, they feared the torture would continue if they did not talk.
The judges wrote that the consistent use of torture by the Shin Bet investigators against the minor over four straight days made any admission of guilt offered during breaks in the “necessary interrogation” invalid.
However, confessions he gave after that four-day period of torture in which he admitted involvement in six other hate-crime attacks targeting Palestinian villages were ruled admissible by the court.
Tuesday’s ruling marked a major setback for the Shin Bet, which vociferously defended the conduct of its investigators throughout the investigation, saying the defense was engaging in a smear campaign against the agency.
The decision to nix all confessions given during “necessary interrogation” could chill future use of torture to extract information.
However, the Central District Prosecutor’s Office noted that the court did not specifically refer to the enhanced interrogation methods used as “torture.” Moreover, the judges recognized that “in order to prevent future attacks the interrogators were required to act in order to decipher the attacks carried out by the suspects in the past,” the prosecution said in a statement.
The Shin Bet provided a similar response to the court’s decision, hailing it as further proof that their enhanced interrogation methods were worthy of use.
“The assessment of the grave threat posed by the terrorist organization that carried out the attack was a worthy conclusion” drawn by the interrogators, the agency said, quoting the court’s decision.
The Shin Bet statement made a point of highlighting the confessions from Ben-Uliel and the minor that were upheld by the court, while neglecting to mention those which were thrown out due to the circumstances under which they were given by the suspects.
“The court’s findings reinforce the assessment of the threat posed by the terror infrastructure and the immediate need (at the time) to eliminate it.”
In a statement of their own following Tuesday’s ruling, the parents of the unnamed minor said they were “pleased that the truth has come to light and that the court ruled that our son had nothing to do with the Duma affair.”
They called for the immediate release of their son and for the opening of a special probe into the conduct of the Shin Bet interrogators.
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.
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 that the ruling was “insufficient and too late.”
“We also want to condemn the Israeli government, ministers and Knesset members who have supported these criminals,” he added.
As members of the Dawabsha family exited the court room in the central city of Lod, a group of young far-right activists began chanting “Ali on the grill,” referring to the infant who was burned to death in the attack. The boy’s grandfather, Hussein, walked by without responding.