Israel accused of legalising torture

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

Israel may legalise torture under two new laws, one of which is entitled the Prohibition of Torture Law, says Amnesty International. It expresses concern that secret guidelines allowing "physical pressure" by interrogators of the Shin Bet internal security agency have opened the door to torture.

Amnesty says Palestinians held for interrogation are commonly hooded and subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation while shackled in painful positions. Although a detainee was shaken to death last year, the government has allowed violent shaking of suspects to continue.

The controversy over the Prohibition of Torture Law and a second law governing the Shin Bet was sparked off when Israel began moves last year to incorporate into its own law the United Nations Convention of 1991 banning torture.

Eitan Felner, of B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, says: "Unfortunately, the law against torture will in fact be the law for torture."

A ministerial committee started work six months ago on the law banning torture, which it defined as physical or mental pain and suffering, "with the exception of pain or suffering inherent in interrogation procedures or punishment according to the laws". Mr Felner says that the exception clause would in practice ensure that most instances of torture were not against Israeli law.

Human rights organisations have called for a law to cover the actions of the Shin Bet, but fear new legislation, soon to be debated by the Knesset, may make things worse rather than better.

This is because, although the law would ban torture, secret guidelines would allow interrogators "the use of pressure". In practice it has proved impossible to draw a line between physical pressure, which is permitted, and outright torture.

Amnesty says that 6,000 Palestinians have been arrested since 4 May 1994, many in round-ups after suicide bomb attacks on Israeli targets. The government argues that physical pressure is necessary to obtain information about future attacks, but B'Tselem points out that most of the suspects who were tortured were subsequently released without any charge against them.

It is not clear if the two new laws will be delayed or speeded up by the expected announcement that the Israeli elections will be brought forward from October to May. In the meantime there are no signs that the use of physical pressure on suspects is being reduced. Abd al-Rahman Zid, a 21- year-old suspected of belonging to the Islamic militant organisation Hamas, died in Meggido prison last Thursday as a result of what a pathologist described as "nerve shock caused by severe torture". Dr Jalal al-Jabiri said he found wounds on the left side of the neck, apparently caused by chains or manacles, which led to severe internal bleeding.

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