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Pathologist Says Prison Conditions Contributed to Palestinian’s Death

February 13, 1992
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The American pathologist who investigated the death of a Palestinian in Israeli custody last week says the security suspect’s fatal heart attack was “triggered by the conditions under which he was kept.”

Dr. Michael Baden said that for 10 of Mustafa Akawi’s last 12 hours, he was sitting in an unheated, freezing corridor of the Hebron prison in the West Bank, with his hands cuffed behind his back and a sack over his head.

Baden is director of forensic sciences for the New York State Police and sits on the board that reviews all deaths in the state prison system. He traveled to Israel on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights and reported his findings at a news conference here Wednesday.

Israel has maintained that Akawi, an alleged member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died of a heart attack resulting from arteriosclerosis.

But the U.S. State Department has expressed concern about the death and requested an investigation.

Baden said the Israeli authorities cooperated with his investigation. He drew his conclusions from both the autopsy, which he witnessed, and interviews with personnel in Israel’s General Security Service, widely known as the Shin Bet, including the interrogator in the Hebron prison.

Baden said the treatment admitted by the interrogators and prison officials “would be considered torture and totally prohibited” in the United States. Under American law, he said, a heart attack triggered by illegal actions is considered homicide.

Baden said inadequate medical care also contributed to Akawi’s death on Feb. 4.

After the 33-year-old suspect complained of chest pains, the paramedic on the floor above asked that he be brought up. The paramedic, who told Baden his training consisted of a 40-day army course 12 years ago, checked Akawi’s pulse and blood pressure and returned him with instructions that he be placed in a heated room and given a hot beverage.

While the interrogator was making tea, Akawi fell into a coma. Only then was the prison’s medical doctor summoned.


Baden criticized the paramedic for making Akawi walk in the cold as he was having a heart attack. He noted that severe cold and physical exertions often lead to heart attacks in those, like Akawi, with severely clogged arteries.

The pathologist said that in New York State, prisoners are given electrocardiograms upon entry. The Hebron prison had such a device, but Akawi never received an EKG.

On the day before his death, Akawi appeared before a military judge and complained of being beaten. Baden said the two large, 5-inch bruises on the prisoner’s chest were not a cause of death, having produced no internal bleeding.

He said Israeli officials said the bruises resulted from an interrogator grabbing Akawi by the lapel and violently shaking him back and forth. A bruise on Akawi’s third vertebra indicated a whiplash from that treatment, said Baden.

Current Israeli policy regarding torture of security suspects was established in 1987 by the Landau Commission. While much of its specific recommendations remain secret, the commission permitted the use of a “moderate measure of physical pressure.”

Under international law, physical and psychological torture is forbidden, said Dr. Robert Kirschner of Chicago, who is deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County, III.

“Leaving someone hooded and cuffed in a freezing temperature constitutes torture under international law,” said Kirschner, an executive committee member of Physicians for Human Rights.

“As often happens in medical investigations, this brings up problems that are systemic, but ignored until somebody dies,” said Baden.

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