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Death of Arab Man Held in Custody Raises New Doubts About Shin Bet

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Suspicions arose this week of a new scandal involving Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, when police, instead of military officers, were assigned to investigate the death of an East Jerusalem Arab whose family claims he was tortured while under interrogation by the agency.

By putting the police Criminal Investigation Division in charge, authorities apparently hope to avoid even the appearance of a coverup.

The autopsy was delayed at the family’s request, pending arrival of a pathologist of their choice from abroad to witness the post-mortem.

Nevertheless, the allegations surrounding the death of Mustafa Yusuf Akawai, a suspected member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, recalled the 1986 uproar over charges that Shin Bet agents were responsible for the deaths of two Arab bus hijackers handed over to them by the Israel Defense Force.

Shin Bet, officially the General Security Services, is Israel’s internal intelligence-gathering agency. Left-wing Knesset members are demanding a new investigation into its practices.

Akawai, 33, father of a year-old child, was detained Jan. 22 on suspicion of security offenses.

Although arrested in East Jerusalem, where Israeli law applies, he was transferred to a military detention center in the West Bank town of Hebron, where the law is administered by the IDF’s Civil Affairs Division.

After being held for a week without charges, he was brought before a military court in Hebron this week to have his period in custody extended. According to his Israeli lawyer, Leah Tsemel, Akawai complained to the judge that he was “tortured” by his Shin Bet interrogators.

DISPLAYED BLOOD AND BRUISES

He displayed blood and bruises on his body, which the judge inspected and ordered a medical examination. But he dismissed the lawyer’s plea that the detainee be released for treatment and extended Akawai’s detention for eight more days.

By Tuesday, he was reported dead. According to IDF sources, an army doctor gave the cause of death as a heart attack.

In the Knesset, Yossi Sarid and Haim Oron of the new left-of-center bloc demanded that Shin Bet present the “full facts” of Akawai’s death to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Another Knesset member, Amnon Rubinstein, suggested that Shin Bet was taking advantage of a judicial finding that “moderate physical pressure” is a legitimate means of interrogation.

Human rights groups and Palestinians allege that Israeli security agents routinely torture Arab detainees to obtain confessions. At least five Arabs have died in detention since 1989.

The IDF, meanwhile, confirmed reports that 10 soldiers and an officer are being investigated in connection with charges of brutality.

The investigations followed a recent report on brutality against Palestinian security prisoners in the territories. It was submitted to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, by reserve Maj. Gen. Rafael Vardi, who was appointed to probe rumors of maltreatment.

An IDF spokesman said eight of the investigations have been completed and turned over to military prosecutors.

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