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Knesset Passes Shin Bet Law, but Torture Clause Not Clarified

February 12, 2002
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The Knesset has passed a landmark law defining the responsibilities and authorities of the Shin Bet security service — but without addressing the controversial use of mild torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists.

After more than 12 years of political and public debate, Israel’s law books for the first time contain legislation stating the objectives of the domestic security agency, its authorities and the mechanisms for its supervision and regulation

The law was approved Monday in a 47-16 vote, with three abstentions. Among the opponents of the bill were members of the Communist-oriented Hadash faction and some lawmakers from the dovish Meretz Party.

Absent from the law was a controversial clause on the agency’s interrogation methods, specifically the use of moderate physical pressure — such as vigorous shaking, playing loud music, sleep deprivation and keeping detainees in painful physical positions for prolonged periods — in the interrogation of terror suspects. The clause was removed following strong objections from several lawmakers and amid concern that its inclusion would prompt an international outcry.

“When I presented the bill, I made clear that no law would be legislated allowing torture in Israel,” Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit was quoted as saying. “There is no need for such a clause and I am unaware of such a law anywhere in the world.”

Regarding a proposal to include the clause on interrogation procedures in the Anti-Terror Act, Sheetrit said, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Even without the interrogation clause, parts of the legislation raised a red flag among lawmakers.

These included a clause stipulating a three-year prison sentence for any Shin Bet official or former official who publishes or otherwise divulges classified information about the organization or its activities to an unauthorized party.

Opposition leader Yossi Sarid of Meretz said the clause is an infringement on freedom of expression, and provides the prime minister, who has overall authority over the security agency, with a loophole for allowing things to happen that should not.

But Knesset member David Magen, who chairs the parliamentary committee that took part in drafting the bill, said the clause is in fact more lenient than existing legislation, which carries a 15-year sentence for leaking classified information.

Prior to the vote, some legislators also objected to the definition of the security agency’s responsibilities. In addition to guarding the state, its institutions and democratic regime from threats of terror, espionage and subversion, the Shin Bet is charged with preserving and advancing “other essential state interests” for national security.

In a recent article in Ha’aretz, former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin of the Labor Party questioned the broad phrasing of the clause. He expressed concern the clause could be used by some future government for vested interests, such as monitoring a particular political party.

The law approved Monday defines the work of the Shin Bet, including setting the tenure of the agency head at five years. It establishes broader monitoring mechanisms of the agency’s activities, spreading responsibilities among the prime minister, Cabinet, a ministerial committee and a classified subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In addition, it calls for an annual report to be submitted by an internal comptroller of the agency.

Still unresolved is how interrogation procedures will be handled by the legislature. Controversy over the methods was one of the main reasons for formulating the Shin Bet law.

In 1987, a state commission headed by Justice Moshe Landau for the first time approved the use of “moderate physical pressure” in the interrogation of terror suspects.

In 1989, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir appointed a commission to begin drafting a Shin Bet law. The matter was taken up by his successor, Yitzhak Rabin, who established a ministerial committee on the matter.

Rabin appointed his justice minister, David Libai, to coordinate government efforts regarding the bill. The matter continued to be addressed by subsequent governments and the bill passed a first reading in the Knesset in 1998.

In 1999, a panel of nine High Court justices unanimously ruled that the Shin Bet was not authorized to use any physical measures during an interrogation, and ruled that the state must make provisions in the law if the Shin Bet is to be able to use moderate physical pressure in interrogations of terror suspects.

Currently, Shin Bet interrogators who used these methods when interrogating “ticking bombs” — suspects they believe have information about impending terror attacks — receive retroactive authorization from the attorney general if he finds the use justified.

Including the interrogation provision in the law would provide interrogators with legal protection against criminal or disciplinary proceedings. Opponents of the clause, including Beilin, recently were quoted as saying its inclusion in law books would be a “stain on society.”

But Shaul Yahalom, a legislator from the National Religious Party, said Shin Bet officials are on the forefront of Israel’s fight against terror, and the special methods are essential tools in preventing terrorists from murdering innocent citizens.

Failure to provide interrogators with full backing within the law is a “cowardly and artificial” washing of hands of the matter, Yahalom charged.

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