There’s an old saying about the Canadian Mounties: they always get their man. Israel’s Shabak has taken this to a whole new level. They get “their man” even if he’s innocent of any crime. And they’ve done this not once, but many times. It’s amazing what a man will do under torture. Which is why security experts have warned that torture is not a productive method of eliciting information from security suspects.
In the case of Khalil Nimri, 23, a resident of East Jerusalem, the Shabak proved this in spades. He had been accused in 2015 of plotting to bomb an Eilat hotel. Why was he suspected? Because a hotel official claimed he’d seen Nimri “scouting” the facility and asking questions about its rooms.
He was arrested and his interrogators accused him of plotting to blow up the hotel. Here’s where things get messy. The official then returned to the Shabak, telling them he’d misidentified Nimri and confused him with another man named Ashraf Saliama, who had actually posed the questions and acted suspiciously. Instead of letting Nimri go, his interrogators doubled down, concocting a story that both men conspired to bomb the facility. Eventually, they extracted a confession from Nimri. He spent the last two years in prison awaiting trial.
Last month, a panel of Israeli judges excoriated the domestic spy agency, saying it’s theory of the case was flawed and that there was a high likelihood the accused was entirely innocent. They denounced the interrogation methods used and said they led to a false confession. They noted that no line-up had been organized during which the error of the hotel official would have been discovered. Nor did the Shabak attempt to confirm Nimri’s alibi. Nor did it examine the hotel security cameras, which never showed the suspect entering the building.
It’s worth noting this passage from the judges’ critique of the investigatory methods employed in the case because they are relevant to all such security investigations anywhere:
The Shabak should investigate itself carefully [and learn from the errors made in this case]. Methods of interrogation which may possibly have led to the discovery of dangerous terror plots could just as easily lead innocent individuals to confess to crimes they did not commit.
The whole thing reminded an Israeli friend of an old joke:
Three spy agencies, the FBI, KGB and Shin Bet, had a contest: who could be first to capture a fox in a dense forest.
The first fox was released. Tens of FBI agents entered the forest with helicopters and sensors. Within four hours they returned with the fox.
The second fox was released. The KGB sent ten agents with eavesdropping equipment and within three hours the agents returned with wide smiles on their lips and with the fox in hand.
The third fox was released. Two Shin Bet agents wearing sunglasses entered the dark woods. After two hours they came out with a squirrel: “Under interrogation, he confessed he was a fox!”
The State prosecutor is weighing an appeal of the Beersheva court ruling to the Supreme Court. Given that this court has just given the Shabak a green light to employ torture freely, it’s a crap shoot to determine whether Khalil will get justice ultimately. One can hope…
Finally, it’s worth nothing that while the Beersheva court decision is a welcome affirmation that the legal system can sometimes right wrongs perpetrated by powerful officials of the state–unfortunately this is very rarely the case. The judiciary most often simply ratifies the story the state offers it about Palestinian security suspects. This case was a welcome anomaly.