Court to rule on use of torture in Israel: Security service is under scrutiny, reports Caroline Moorehead

THE Israeli High Court will soon decide whether the country's general security service, the Shin Bet, can legally continue to use 'moderate physical pressure' on Palestinian detainees in the occupied territories.

If the verdict is no, its timing could scarcely be better. The tenth session of the UN Committee against Torture opened in Geneva on Monday. A formal indictment of torture in Israel would be a significant victory for human rights when the use of torture is probably increasing. The police, army and security forces of 96 countries are believed to use it, although many of their governments have signed and ratified the 1987 Convention against Torture.

What makes the use of torture by Shin Bet so striking is that it is exceptionally well documented. Israel, rightly, prides itself on its lack of censorship. In 1992, five reports showed that, since the intifada began, between 2,000 and 3,000 detainees had been beaten, hooded, deprived of sleep or made to stand in boxes no bigger than their bodies for hours.

While the openness of the reports is encouraging, the lack of action to curb torture suggests that world opinion exerts little influence over the government.

What the Israeli High Court judges have been asked to do is re-examine the conclusions of the Landau Commission, (set up in 1987 after a Palestinian man was sentenced to five years in prison on the basis of a confession extracted after torture) that the use of 'moderate physical' and 'non-violent psychological' pressure was acceptable against Palestinians suspected of security offences.

The High Court will also decide whether the hitherto secret appendix at the end of the Landau report - on past and present measures of interrogation - should remain secret.

Numerous studies confirm that torture commonly impairs memory and concentration, and causes headaches, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, sleeplessness and apathy. Many victims also suffer from the sense of loss, the insecurity and the discrimination that come with being a refugee.

There is a growing fear among psychiatrists that children who have been tortured more readily become torturers themselves. Reports on Palestinian children in Gaza and the West Bank provide frightening evidence that systematic brutalisation destroys all feelings of compassion and moral restraint.

The Association of Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights, a collection of courageous doctors who take mobile clinics into the occupied territories in their free time, is to hold an international meeting in Israel in June to discuss methods of torture and its legal and ethical implications.

One certain topic for discussion will be the move from more obvious forms of physical brutality to methods that leave no outward trace. For example, recent victims report being condemned to death, taken before a firing squad or led to the gallows and then suddenly reprieved, reducing them to terrifying cycles of dread and dependency.

In June, Vienna is to host a United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, the first summit of its kind for 25 years. One of the suggestions again being put forward is the appointment of a special commissioner for human rights, with a wide- ranging mandate and the authority to act rapidly and independently over blatant violations. But whether such a person could persuade governments to give up torture, when decades of supposedly binding international agreements have failed to do so, is doubtful.

Once endemic, torture has proved almost impossible to eradicate, and - as the experience of Israel shows - the fact that the world knows and condemns what is happening counts for little.

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