This article was provided by the Shomrim independent media organization.
The subjects at the center of two high-profile cases are alleging that Israeli interrogators forced them to endure humiliating and inhumane conditions outlawed in most Western countries in order to extract information — and it turns out that they’re far from alone.
Moshe Hogeg, a prominent businessman and owner of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, says that while in police custody he was interrogated after being deprived of sleep for days, and in between questioning was confined to a cockroach-infested holding cell.
In a recording of an interrogation of Nir Hefetz, who had been an aide to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a detective can be heard warning that Hefetz’s family is in terrible danger, citing an imminent “bombshell” about to be released about him.
In Israel, laws governing such interactions are fuzzy at best. But the experiences of public figures like Hogeg, who is under investigation for fraud and sexual assault, and Hefetz, a onetime Netanyahu adviser turned state witness in the corruption trial against the former premier, are shedding light on some of the arguably disturbing ways Israeli police investigators operate.
“When the media was up in arms over Hefetz’s descriptions of his questioning, in our office the response was, ‘We see this — and a lot worse — every single day.’ I’m delighted that the issue is finally on the agenda,” says Michal Orkabi of the Tel Aviv Public Defender’s Office, where she monitors police interrogation techniques.
The situation as it exists in Israel today leaves the police to operate with great freedom and little oversight, experts say. Only the courts can stop them and they often do so too late, when the damage — both psychological and to the investigation — has already been done.
In Israel, a suspect can consult with their attorney before questioning, but then the attorney leaves the room. That’s in marked contrast to many other countries, where the attorney is present at all times and can offer real-time advice.
In response to questions, the police issued the following statement: “Israel Police acts under the Police Ordinance, which authorizes it, among other things, to conduct investigations where criminal offenses are suspected. The rules of investigation are determined by the Criminal Procedure Law and are overseen by the relevant authorities in the police, the State Attorney’s Office, and the Police Prosecution Division.”
The police spokesperson would not elaborate further.
Experts say police investigators are highly motivated to extract a confession or incriminating evidence because in the Israeli legal system, a single piece of evidence is enough for a conviction.
Police methods test a suspect’s endurance and not their truthfulness
“There’s a systemic failure here: The more energy the police invest in getting a suspect to confess, or in incriminating someone by using subterfuge and jailhouse snitches to get them, the larger the chance of success — but the evidence will be less and less useful, as it will be impossible to know whether it is genuine. Police methods test a suspect’s endurance and not their truthfulness,” says Boaz Sangero, a professor at Western Galilee College who has founded a website dedicated to critiquing the criminal justice system in Israel.
“Police investigators will only get the message and improve their interrogation techniques once judges start tossing out illegally obtained confessions. In the meantime, we’re stuck with a system in which both the innocent and guilty confess — and almost everyone [on trial] is convicted,” Sangero adds.
Until the recent high-profile cases there was little public discussion of the issue — in part, some say, because people tend not to have much sympathy for those under investigation.
“Nobody cares about criminals,” says Orkabi. “People are more forgiving when it comes to misleading rapists and murderers. The feeling is that it’s okay to punish them from the moment they are arrested… because most people are sure it won’t happen to them, thinking, ‘We won’t be questioned and we won’t be arrested.’”
People are more forgiving when it comes to misleading rapists and murderers. The feeling is that it’s okay to punish them from the moment they are arrested
But data shows that not all detainees are criminals; only about half of those who are arrested end up at trial. Others are questioned and detained for weeks — sometimes, it turns out, simply for having the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Meanwhile, they can be held in cells with flea-bitten mattresses, cockroaches, and little or no ventilation, which are cold in winter months and hot in the summer.
Hogeg’s attorneys filed a police complaint about his treatment, including a claim that, bizarrely, the police once spent seven hours driving him between the office where he was interrogated and his holding cell — a trip that would normally take just 30 minutes.
In recordings of Hefetz’s interrogation, a detective can be heard saying: “In the next few days, a bombshell is going to shake your world… I’m telling you that you ought to reconsider your path.”
Hefetz added that the police worked much like the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. “We have the same capabilities. Your family unit is in grave danger now because of this bombshell. You won’t be the only one impacted by it,” he claimed to have been told by an interrogator.
According to Hefetz, on his second night in police custody he woke up covered in flea bites, but his requests for medical attention went unanswered until he collapsed on the floor of his cell and a medic attended him.
“After a few days, a doctor came and saw my wounds and he told the investigators, ‘It’s not okay that he hasn’t seen a doctor until now,’” says Hefetz.
The letter of the law
When it comes to what is and is not legally permissible during a police interrogation, there is no clear answer.
“The law is silent when it comes to suspects’ rights,” says Tzipora Gitter, the head of prisoner representation at the Public Defender’s Office in Haifa, where she focuses on interrogation conditions.
“This is very different from somewhere like the United Kingdom, where these things are anchored in law. The Criminal Procedure Law deals with detainees’ rights, not with conditions in the interrogation room,” she says.
The law is silent when it comes to suspects’ rights. This is very different from somewhere like the United Kingdom, where these things are anchored in law
There is a section of the law, however, that is intended to protect suspects’ rights. It stipulates a confession must be given freely and willingly.
“The question is what does ‘freely’ mean,” says Moshe Mazur, one of Hogeg’s lawyers. “If someone hasn’t slept for 24 hours or hasn’t been given enough food, is he speaking freely? There’s no clear boundary here.”
Furthermore, says Gitter, police procedures are not made public. Gitter says that in European countries, suspects have clearly laid out rights including breaks in questioning every two hours, inspired in part by a British study that found the average length of an investigation that led to a false confession was two hours and 16 minutes. Detainees there also must be given a minimum of eight hours’ sleep.
“British police also confront suspects with harsh allegations, but their attitude is more humane,” says Gitter.
According to Mazur, part of the problem is how amorphous the guidelines are, with wording like “reasonable time” for sleep. And then there’s a blame game, he says, between the Israel Prison Service (IPS) and the police when it comes to responsibility for interrogation conditions.
“The IPS claims that the police drag interrogations on into the small hours of the night, while the police argue that this is needed for the investigation — even though in many cases there’s no justification for it. It also says that the time it takes to get the suspect from the detention center to the investigation room is not in its control. So, the suspects fall between the cracks,” says Mazur.
“When it comes to sleep, there have been some truly absurd allegations. The state must allow a suspect six hours of sleep — unless the police believe that there’s reason to think a life is in danger or the efficiency of the investigation could be compromised,” says Gitter.
“What could compromise an investigation? That’s a good question. We’ve secured an acquittal for someone accused of burglary because he was half-asleep when he was questioned. In the video, you clearly see an officer questioning a suspect who’s asleep and that was the basis for an indictment to be filed,” she says.
The police view
Former police officers admit that when it comes to conducting interrogations, there are many gray areas.
“The police will always walk close to the line; the subterfuge that an investigator uses is designed to achieve things they wouldn’t get otherwise,” says Yair Regev, a former police investigator who now works as a public defender. “You could say that everything is permitted, apart from what the Supreme Court explicitly said is unlawful. Over the years, there have been more and more rulings and the courts are becoming more protective of suspects’ rights.”
Everything is permitted, apart from what the Supreme Court explicitly said is unlawful
“It’s hard to write guidelines for conducting an investigation, because it’s a very amorphous area with a lot of room to get creative,” says Meir Gilboa, former deputy head of the International Crime Unit. “Even if there were clear guidelines, I don’t know to what extent they would be internalized.”
Gilboa says that when it comes to police lineups, the Israel Police has one of the best protocols in the world.
“But let’s admit it,” he says. “They don’t always act in accordance with the rules. They often cut corners. Only a handful of righteous officers will look at the guidelines before holding a lineup. Plus, there are hundreds of such guidelines in the police. I’ll eat my hat if you could find one in five officers who know even 10 percent of the rules.”
The most complex investigations are conducted by the Lahav 433 unit, staffed by experienced and well-trained officers with backgrounds as lawyers, economists or accountants. But Orkabi is even more wary of such situations.
“It is precisely in the more complex and convoluted investigations that the lines are easier to cross,” she says. “And that’s got nothing to do with the intelligence or education of the officers. It’s the system — a system that allows for interrogations in which anything goes. The question is to what extent we allow it and, at the moment, most of us are perfectly okay with it.”
Retired commander Ziva Agami-Cohen, the former head of the police fraud division and now a private attorney, can see things from both sides of the table.
“During my time in the police,” she says, “I took interrogations very seriously; I saw them as the heart of policework that should be conducted cleverly and using subterfuge. Exposing the truth is, in my opinion, the most important thing — but not, of course, at any price. The use of force, for example, is always unacceptable. But our approach was that criminals can’t complain, since their actions got them into the situation to begin with.”
I have clients who were not involved in any criminal incident, who find themselves subjected to shouting and humiliation in the interrogation room, until they break down in tears
“Now, I have clients who were not involved in any criminal incident, who find themselves subjected to shouting and humiliation in the interrogation room, until they break down in tears,” says Agami-Cohen. “A grown man crying is an embarrassing sight. It’s not a crime to shout, and I agree that a police interrogation shouldn’t be a picnic. But unfortunately, I have now been exposed to unworthy acts committed against good, regular people, who could have been encouraged to talk without profanities and without humiliating them.”
One legal reform Agami-Cohen thinks necessary is for it to be permissible for attorneys to be present during interrogations.
“We don’t have to copy the American system; we can decide when the presence of a lawyer is mandatory and when it isn’t. I used to think that no criminal would confess with a lawyer sitting next to him, and that would increase the crime rate,” Agami-Cohen says. “Today, I think that a confession is not the be-all and end-all, and that police should work harder to find evidence other than a suspect’s confession. Even if, as a result, more confessions are deemed inadmissible, we have to ask ourselves how far we, as a society, are willing to go to reduce crime.”
Calls for change
Lawyers describe a reality in which courts sometimes reprimand the police about how they secured a confession, but don’t usually dismiss a case over the extreme measures used to procure it.
If such practices were prohibited, they argue, the police would have to focus on looking for evidence over trying to break down suspects.
For those who argue that subterfuge is needed to secure confessions, some lawyers and activists are calling for lawmakers to then write that into the law.
“Legislators should sit down and write a law that stipulates that it’s permissible for the police to lie and deceive. That an investigator can tell suspects that their fingerprints were found at the scene or that their DNA was found on the body of a rape victim — even though that’s not true,” says Orkabi.
“The norm today is that it’s okay to lie, but not to forge documents. An investigator can tell a suspect that his friend has confessed, but he cannot show him a forged confession. We have clients who can’t even read, so what difference does that make to them? And still, one type of subterfuge is permissible while another isn’t,” she says.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has authored a bill that would disqualify a confession if due process was violated in order to get it — but Orkabi says this won’t put an end to the practice of misleading and lying to suspects.
“If police can lie and deceive, and can hold someone in harsh conditions, then there’s nothing illegal,” Orkabi says. “Investigators aren’t doing anything illicit for the very simple reason that they’ve never been told not to behave in this way.”
Another development is a bill that would enshrine in law various rulings that give the courts wider and more flexible discretion to disqualify evidence (including evidence provided by witnesses) in instances where the suspect’s right to due process was fundamentally violated. Another proposal, currently being reviewed by the Justice Ministry, seeks to allow courts to give greater weight to violations of suspects’ rights.
Perhaps most significant is a government-sponsored bill for suspects’ rights. It would enshrine in law the rights and obligations of anyone questioned by police and include detailed instructions regarding sleep, nighttime questioning and food.
Orkabi is optimistic. “It will take time, but, in the end, it will happen,” she says. “These lies, this trickery, this system that grinds people down until they can’t take it anymore. In the end, it will disappear.”