TEL AVIV (Nov. 1)
The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency has, since 1971, used psychological and “physical pressures” to obtain confessions from suspected terrorists and resorted to perjury to ensure convictions, according to the report of an investigating committee, made public, in part, on Friday.
The report is expected to trigger a flood of appeals to Israel’s Supreme Court for new trials for terrorists and others convicted on the basis of confessions.
The report, nevertheless, recommends no criminal action against Shin Bet operatives who employed extra-legal methods and, in fact, sanctions such methods in some cases. The extent to which they may be permitted is specified in a section of the report submitted to Premier Yitzhak Shamir that remains secret.
The report was prepared by a government appointed judicial commission headed by former Supreme Court President Moshe Landau, assisted by a former head of Mossad, the external secret service, whose identity is classified, State Comptroller Yaacov Maltz and Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, former commander of the northern sector. The commission was set up as a result of two incidents that created turmoil in Israel and headlines around the world. One was the April 1984 killing of two Arab bus hijackers in the Gaza Strip after they were handed over to Shin Bet agents by the Israel Defense Force, which captured them alive.
The second was the case of former IDF Lt. Izat Nafsu, whom the Supreme Court earlier this year ordered released from prison after serving seven years of a life sentence for alleged spying and contact with terrorists. The high court found that Nafsu, a Circassian Moslem, was convicted on the basis of evidence fabricated by the Shin Bet.
CONCERN ABOUT ISRAEL’S IMAGE
While Israeli officials have welcomed the report as a means to correct past failings, they have expressed concern that its publication could damage Israel’s image abroad. Israeli officials had vigorously denied complaints of malpractice in the interrogation of suspects lodged by such highly respected groups as Amnesty International. The report now proves the complaints to have been well-founded, at least in part.
The commission absolved the country’s political leadership, the judiciary and military authorities on grounds that they did not know of the Shin Bet’s practices and could not be held responsible for them, even though Shin Bet reports directly to the prime minister, who has oversight over its operations.
It found that perjury was a matter of Shin Bet policy related to the inadmissibility of confessions since 1971, and was committed by Shin Bet officials to conceal their interrogation methods and ensure conviction. The report notes that in terrorist cases, confession is the main instrument to obtain conviction, but branded the perjury “ideological criminality.”
The most serious instances of perjury involved the three men who headed Shin Bet since 1971, particularly the last two, Avraham Ahituv and Avraham Shalom. Shalom was forced to resign after the bus hijack affair, along with several other ranking Shin Bet officials. All received presidential pardons, although no formal charges were brought against them.
EUPHEMISM FOR TORTURE
With respect to “physical pressure,” believed to be a euphemism for torture, the commission noted in the published part of its report that normal police methods of interrogation and presentation to the courts of corroborative evidence could not always be applied to terrorism cases.
Such evidence was frequently impossible to find or present because it was obtained by undercover agents or by pressure exerted on witnesses. Therefore, psychological or physical pressure should be allowed within certain bounds, the report states. It proposes guidelines for the Shin Bet to follow in such cases. It also recommends that external supervision and control of Shin Bet by the Knesset, the prime minister, the Cabinet and the state comptroller be strengthened.
The commission rejected criminal action against Shin Bet operatives on grounds that they could plead justification in the fight against rampant terrorism and because prosecution would wreak havoc in the ranks of the Shin Bet.
It found that harsh interrogation methods and perjury were not employed to convict innocent persons. The report in fact repeatedly praises the Shin Bet’s efforts and success in fighting terrorism.
At the same time, it recommends that the attorney general and the military judicial authorities take steps to permit re-trials in response to all justified requests.
It also recommends that appropriate guidelines be issued to allow prisoners sentenced by military courts in the administered territories the right of appeal. At present there is no right of appeal against military court rulings.