Israel has a law that requires police and security officials to record their interrogations of suspects who are charged with crimes carrying a sentence of ten years or more. That sounds great, right? Just the way a democracy should work. But hold on. There’s a hole in the law big enough to drive a Mack truck through. Both the police and Shin Bet are exempt from this law as far as security detainees are concerned. In other words, in order to allow security personnel to use whatever means they wish, the Knesset permits them to have no recordings that might offer evidence of widely reported abuse and torture used against such prisoners.
The exemption was due to expire recently after it had initially been extended first for five years, then another four. But never fear, we won’t abandon our boys doing the dirty work on our behalf in the cells of Shabak. So the Knesset will extend the exemption for another three years, doing its duty on behalf of the secret police.
Here’s the reasoning (Hebrew) behind the exemption in all its fetid glory:
In the special circumstances of security investigations, which involve the fight against extremist, well-organized terror groups, documenting interrogations is liable to damage in a very real way the quality of security investigations, and thus the ability to deter terror threats.
Not a word about damaging the quality of Israeli democracy since it’s taken a back seat to security from almost day one of the existence of the State.
The Shin Bet chief of interrogations, whose codename (yes, they have such things in the Israeli security system) is “Netzer,” was present at the Knesset deliberation, wove this nice fairy tale for the assembled solons:
Shin Bet investigations are overseen and documented from the beginning to the end [note he doesn’t say how they’re documented, in what form, etc.]. We’re not talking about damaging anyone’s human rights, but rather protecting our methods. The exemption is necessary so that our enemies don’t learn our investigative methods.
To give you some idea of the credibility behind such platitudes, our man is the same “Major Netzer” celebrated for his prowess in torturing Palestinian security detainees. In this testimony from one such individual, he says that the Major and his colleagues interrogated him for 46 of the first 51 hours he was under detention. These included three prolonged periods of questioning of 12, 16, and 18 hours. Let’s pick it up where the prisoner really gets down in it:
This was real torture. The most difficult experience imaginable using various extreme methods of abuse. The first method involved tying my hands from behind and tying my legs from behind under the chair. In this position they struck me in the chest. After a quarter hour in this position, four of them [interrogators] would take turns thrusting me back and forth among them
So get this, Shin Bet interrogations are the equivalent of work product and mustn’t be revealed because to do so would allow Israel’s enemies to learn how it ‘persuades’ prisoners to give it the information it demands. Presumably, that would enable terror groups to prepare their cadre for such interrogations in order to withstand them. Not a word about the possibility that such recordings would reveal the nasty quasi-criminal enterprise that the security agencies conduct on behalf of the State. Lest you think the previous sentence was hyperbolic, go back and read this post about a provoked prison riot which the prison security service put down with brutal force, ending with the murder of a prisoner who wasn’t even engaging in protest. Now, recall that the commander who oversaw this exercise wasn’t disciplined or even investigated. In fact, he was promoted for doing his job so well.
Israeli human rights NGOs dutifully raised their voices (Hebrew) in opposition. But they were drowned out by the swelling chorus of support for any and all methods used to beat confessions and information out of detainees. Here are some of their wise, but unheeded words:
The need for recording security interrogations is greater because of the need for certainty that a confession is valid and because of the critical importance of ensuring that the investigation was conducted properly, preventing the use of improper methods. Prisoner populations are the most likely to be exposed to the danger of degrading or inhumane conditions, including the use of physical or emotional violence up to and including outright torture. Recording interrogations can aid greatly in determining the credibility of complaints of improper acts. It can supply objective specific documentation regarding the conduct of an investigation, either supporting or refuting the charges of the detainees.
Like voices crying out in the wilderness. They speak but there is no one to hear. In fact, the existence of the NGOs, though an inconvenience for the authorities, allows them to tell the world: we are a democracy; look at how our NGOs freely criticize us; what more can you ask of us?
There are those who’ve questioned my contention here that security prisoners like Dirar Abusisi, Ameer Makhoul, Mustafa Dirani, and others have been tortured during their interrogations. They’ve done this despite the fact that defense lawyers have described in detail the sleep deprivation, loud noises, being tied to a chair for long periods, anal penetration, and worse. Now, I’ll throw it back in their face: if you’re confident there is no such abuse, protest the lack of documentation of the interrogations. If you don’t then you’re little more than a hypocrite because the video or audio tape would prove your claim. Without it, you have nothing, not a leg to stand on.
Any of you American’s out there reading this, don’t get any big ideas about how superior our legal system is to Israel’s (though given the horrid record of the Obama administration it’s hard to see how anyone would believe this). Remember the videotapes of brutal waterboarding by CIA inquisitors that were destroyed when word began to leak out that they existed? Remember Jose Rodriguez, the CIA officer who destroyed them, who wasn’t even investigated, let alone punished for obstruction of justice?
We are no better than Israel in this, which is what makes it all the more tragic.
On an unrelated note, I was doing research for this post and tried to access the Knesset website. But it’s been down for several hours. Israelis say they’re able to access it. But those abroad can’t. I don’t know if it’s been hacked or whether this is regular maintenance. But I find it peculiar that the website of a country’s main legislative body would be down for any length of time unless there was something very wrong.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.