Israeli Supreme Court bans physical force during interrogations

JERUSALEM — Human rights groups are hailing an end to Israel's use of interrogation methods they say are tantamount to torture.

Israel's Supreme Court on Monday barred Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, from using physical force when questioning prisoners.

In its decision, the panel of nine justices unanimously ruled that the Shin Bet had no right to use interrogation methods that had been applied over the years to thousands of Palestinian detainees suspected of terrorist activity against Israel.

The decision said these methods included violent shaking, sleep depravation and placing detainees in uncomfortable positions for prolonged periods.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that he respects the Supreme Court's decision but that "it seems as though the decision will make things very difficult for the [Shin Bet], and, in order to save lives, we need to find a way" to extract information from a suspect about an impending attack.

The court, in accepting the seven petitions filed by human rights groups, rejected the conclusions of a government-appointed commission eight years ago, which gave Israel's domestic intelligence agency authority to exert "moderate physical force" in certain situations.

In its decision, the court said it recognized the special security concerns of the country but concluded that in a democracy such as Israel, humiliating and painful interrogation methods are unacceptable. The court left room for the Knesset to legislate on the matter.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh blasted the ruling, calling the decision "harmful to Israel's security."

Said Sneh, "I have great respect for the court, but restricting the [Shin Bet] in its interrogations within the reality in which we live and will live in the near future does not help defend Israel's residents.

"I wonder what would have happened had we captured one of the drivers of [Sunday's] car bombs and we had wanted to know whether there were more car bombs. Would it then also have been forbidden to shake the terrorist?" he continued.

"It's nice to have liberal legislation. It's good for Scandinavia, Western Europe and North America. But in this part of the world, in which we struggle to survive, it is almost irrelevant. The court cannot be so detached from the day-to-day reality of our lives."

Other critics echoed Sneh's concern that the tough measures used by the security service were intended for "ticking bombs" — the term used for detainees suspected of having information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack.

However, Dan Meridor, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman and former justice minister, called the decision "very important and courageous."

The decision does not ban the use of reasonable force in certain situations, he noted. And if a member of Shin Bet were to act out of necessity — such as to save lives — he or she would not be considered to have acted illegally.

"In this way, nothing has changed," Meridor said. "It has presented the [Shin Bet] with new challenges, and a way must be found to preserve the balance between needs and the values of a humane democratic society.

The Shin Bet "carries out an important job, but the use of force does not even always work," Meridor said. "Sometimes people have made false confessions as a result, which is even more damaging because it hurts an innocent man and does not help to prevent crime."

Knesset member Taleb A-Sanna of the United Arab List described the decision as "a bold decision which preserves human dignity and puts an end to methods which force false confessions."