Free press in Israel? Sure. The press is free to report what the government wants it to report. And it’s free not to report what the government doesn’t want it to report. That’s press freedom, Israel-style. In the Only Democracy in the Middle East.
I refer you to the case of Arafat Jaradat, a West Bank student and gas station attendant who was arrested by the Shin Bet in Feburary 2013 and was dead five days later. His crime? Allegedly throwing stones and a Molotov cocktail at Israeli forces during a protest. An autopsy found three broken ribs, severe contusions on his legs and forehead, and blood in his mouth and nose. A Palestinian doctor appointed by the family to be part of the autopsy team found the injuries consistent with torture, as has a Turkish forensic specialist in injuries caused by torture. The report by the latter specialist was commissioned by the NGOs Al Haq and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. It was submitted in a secret court hearing held earlier this week before Israeli judge, Ami Kobo.
The Israeli medical examiner found the same wounds on Jaradat’s body but could not determine a cause of death. In fact, he declared that the broken ribs and other contusions could have resulted from attempts to revive him after his heart stopped. The Palestinian and Turkish specialists found no evidence of any signs of attempts to resuscitate him. The Israeli foreign ministry also released a statement claiming he died as a result of a heart ailment even though none of the medical specialists, including the Israeli found any evidence of a heart condition. But of course if someone’s heart stops beating, that’s quite a heart condition, isn’t it??
The last person to see the prisoner alive was his lawyer, who told Haaretz about their encounter:
The fellow came in – doubled over, scared, confused and shrunken,” Sabbagh told us this week. “The judge gave us two minutes to talk. He told me he suffered from back pain that had been exacerbated by prolonged sitting on a chair with his hands tied behind his back during his interrogation.”
Jaradat’s physical and psychological condition looked to Sabbagh like serious cause for concern, and he requested that the judge have him examined by a doctor. The judge indeed ordered such an examination, but it is not clear if it actually took place and what its findings were. The prosecution asked to have Jaradat’s remand extended for 15 days – thereby indicating the investigation was far from over – and the judge approved another 12 days of detention and interrogations.
This apparently broke Jaradat’s spirit. He thought about his pregnant wife and his children. He begged his lawyer to do something to get him released and the lawyer explained to him that this was not within his power. According to Sabbagh, the fact of his transfer to Megiddo Prison on that same day or the next day, even though the investigation had not yet been completed, indicates he had been passed along to stool pigeons. Usually only people whose interrogations have been completed or who are at the stage of being sent on to informers get transferred to Megiddo.
Israel claims Jaradat was “resting” in his cell, but Sabbagh emphasizes that there is never rest in detention, in those conditions…
There is another element of duplicity in Jaradat’s death. Upon his arrest, he was brought to the Shin Bet interrogation prison at Jalameh. But on his death, he was in the Israeli prison of Megiddo (where security detainees are sent after their Shin Bet interrogation is complete). Gideon Levy implies that this was a further attempt to confuse the circumstances of his death, so that investigators could not pinpoint where in the chain of custody he died.
When there is a death in custody, a judge is appointed to review the findings and determine whether there is grounds for a further criminal investigation. In such cases involving the Shin Bet, the hearing is closed to the public and media in order to protect the security services from intrusive review. This, of course, makes it far more likely they will not be held accountable for the murder of Jaradat.
To be fair, I should make clear that Jaradat was held in various places and conditions during his incarceration. It’s conceivable his injuries could’ve occurred outside his Shin Bet interrogation. The Shin Bet is known to pass along suspects to Palestinian prisoner-informants, who “tune them up” for interrogators and attempt to elicit further confessions. But whether he was killed by Shin Bet officers or Palestinian stoolies, the culpability lies with the security agency. A Supreme Court ruling forbids torture except in certain limited circumstances, but the ruling is routinely ignored.
Jaradat was from the village of Sa’ir. He had two children and at the time of his death, his wife was pregnant with his third.
Everything above is standard, run of the mill Israeli security apparatus brutality, murder, and perversion of justice. But what makes all this far worse is that PCATI circulated its autopsy findings and press release to the Israeli media which…did nothing. It’s astonishing that in a case like this in which a prisoner was murdered in custody, the Israeli press refuses to cover this newsworthy development in the case. It simply refuses to put any effort into covering the court proceeding and the accompanying material offered to the court.
Why is this? It goes back to my first paragraph about Israel’s much-vaunted press freedom. There is no gag order in this case. There is nothing formal preventing media coverage. But reporters did ask the Ministry of Justice about reporting and were told they couldn’t. Why? Because the PCATI-Al Haq document was submitted as part of a secret judicial proceeding. Therefore, even though the NGOs commissioning the report released it to the public and asked for media coverage, reporters are prohibited from doing so. Not to mention that the official Israeli autopsy findings have been released far and wide and are under no such prohibition.
That brings me to explain the reason the security forces haven’t been able to wield the judicial hammer of the gag order. If they did get such a ruling they’d have to embargo the government’s own autopsy results and any related documents they’ve submitted to the judge in this case. They don’t want to impede their own PR efforts, only efforts by the human rights NGOs to tell the public what really happened. The truth has become an orphan.
I’m sorry. I have as much sympathy as the next guy for the difficulties of practicing journalism under an authoritarian security regime such as Israel’s, but this is pathetic. The Ministry has no legal basis under which it may prevent publication if it refuses to get a gag. This is simple craven capitulation to state power on the part of journalists from such august publications as Haaretz and others. This is a pathetic breach of journalistic standards.
The last time a Palestinian prisoner was known to have been killed in Shin Bet custody was in 1995. In that case, the Shin Bet arrested, tortured and killed Abd al-Samed Harizat. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Hebrew), the prisoner was:
…Interrogated for 11 hours during which he was shaken severely a total of twelve times. The interrogation was only suspended upon a sudden deterioration of his mental condition and after bodily fluids began bubbling from his mouth and nose.
He was taken to Hadassah Hospital where he died four days later. A Shin Bet interrogator was arrested and charged with negligence. There were no criminal charges ever brought because the prosecutor found the Shin Bet could not have realized that its procedures might result in death. This despite the fact that violent shaking is not only a standard technique for torturers, but one that periodically ends in death.
In Jaradat’s case, there won’t be any charges. The times of Harizat are long ago and far away, under the prime ministership of Yitzhak Rabin. Not a man known for mercy, but at least one willing to have his torturers held accountable periodically. There is no chance there will be any culpability in the current case. And even less so while the Israeli media is asleep at the switch.