IDF judge frees UK suspect over ‘painful’ interrogration

Justice slams ‘shackling, threats and flagrant exploitation’ used by Shin Bet to extract ‘inadmissible’ confession

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Illustrative photo of a man in handcuffs. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a man in handcuffs. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A Israeli military judge in the West Bank ordered the release of a Lebanese-born British citizen, throwing out the Shin Bet security service’s “inadmissible” evidence that he said was based on a confession obtained by shackling and threatening the suspect, and “flagrant exploitation” of his weakness.

“There is no doubt that the defendant’s admission, provided an hour before the end of his interrogation by the Shin Bet, was dramatically influenced by the interrogation method, which included continuous and painful shackling, threats, and flagrant exploitation of of the accused’s demonstrable weakness,” Lt. Col. Azriel Levy ruled, Haaretz newspaper reported Tuesday. The report credited Walla journalist Omri Sadan with breaking the story.

The defendant’s rights were “violated,” Levy said, and the interrogation methods used “conflicted with the right to testify freely and voluntarily,” and amounted to the “unreasonable suppression of his rights.”

“For these reasons, I can already rule at this stage that the defendant’s confessions were not admissible.”

In February, the human rights groups B’Tselem and HaMoked charged that prison abuse by the Shin Bet, including sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme heat and cold, inedible food, solitary confinement and physical beatings, were a matter of “formal interrogation policy.” Overall, some of the cases amounted to “torture,” the groups said.

“Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees is inherent to the Shin Bet’s interrogation policy, which is dictated from above, not set by interrogators in the field,” they charged.

Right-wing activists attend a protest in Tel Aviv, staging alleged torture by the Shin Bet against Jewish terror suspects (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Right-wing activists attend a protest in Tel Aviv, staging alleged torture by the Shin Bet against Jewish terror suspects (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In May, lawmakers advanced a bill restricting the admissibility in court of confessions by terror suspects if the confessions were obtained through physical or psychological pressure.

One of the reasons cited for the bill was the need “to educate investigators and deter enforcement [agencies] from using improper investigation methods.”

The accused, Fayez Mahmoud Ahmed Sherari, 49, who has lived in England for 23 years, entered Israel from Jordan via the Allenby Crossing and was arrested four days later, on September 15, when he asked to leave. He was interrogated on October 6.

Military prosecutors charged him with training and having contact with an enemy organization, with providing services to an illegal association and bringing money into the region from an enemy. They asked that Sherari be kept behind bars until the end of proceedings against him — a request Judge Levy denied, saying the Shin Bet had not presented sufficient evidence to justify it, even though the charges against Sherari were serious.

The Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and Israel (Shay Levy/Flash90)
The Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and Israel (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Levy tore apart the prosecutors’ initial indictment, regarding training and contact with an enemy, which, it emerged, took place in 1993 in Lebanon “or somewhere nearby” according to the charge. Undergoing military training overseas was not a criminal offense, per se, Levy said, and Sherari was not being accused of having undergone the training with the aim of carrying out a hostile act in Israel or the area.

On a separate charge of bringing terror money into Israel, even the prosecution agreed it had been brought from Jordan and was bound for London, Levy said, “so that the use of the technical detail of bringing terror money into the region is weak, besides the fact that no money was found.”

The charge of providing services to an illegal association related to the Shin Bet’s allegation that from 2005 on, Sherari had several meetings in Lebanon with a Hamas activist, Hamed Haraaz, who they said was responsible for transferring money from Hamas overseas into the West Bank. The indictment said Sherari had agreed to act as messenger between Haraaz and other Hamas members and that earlier this year, Sherari met with Haraaz again, and agreed to act as courier for 50,000 Euros and cellular phones.

Judge Levy refused to admit as “independent evidence” messages from Sherari’s cellphone, saying even it was independent, it was “completely without significance” in the absence of an admissible confession.

The Shin Bet said it had lodged an appeal with the military appeals court which had not yet issued a decision. It added: “Claims about the use of torture during the interrogation of Fayez Sherari are baseless and unfounded.”

The use of physical and psychological pressure, including torture, by security and law enforcement agencies has been the subject of intense debate in Israel, as the methods are used exclusively against terror suspects, and often in cases where officials believe an attack may be imminent. A key 1999 Supreme Court ruling set strict limits to the Shin Bet’s powers to torture in counter terrorism operations, but did not eliminate all methods of pressure altogether.

While evidence obtained through such pressure may be useful to preventing attacks, judicial rulings and legislation has made it increasingly difficult to use any information or confessions obtained by such methods to try the suspect.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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