Prisoner death in Israel revives torture debate Palestinian captive complained to judge

February 06, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- The death of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail after he complained to a judge he was being tortured has renewed denunciations of the interrogation methods used by Israel's secret police, the Shin Bet.

Authorities said Mustafa al Akawi, 36, died in jail Tuesday in the West Bank city of Hebron, two days after he appeared in a military court where a judge said there were bruises on the prisoner's arms and shoulders.

The judge noted in court records his "strong suspicion" that the prisoner's claims of being beaten were true.

He reduced the amount of time Mr. Akawi could be kept in custodybut turned down a request by a team of lawyers for his release.

"When they took him, he was in very good condition," said Abdallah abu Mustafa, Mr. Akawi's father. "So how could this happen?"

Mr. Akawi's death has brought back to life a dispute about whether torture is a routine -- and allowable -- practice for the Shin Bet to direct against Palestinian prisoners, many of them not formally charged with a crime.

Israeli authorities said yesterday that an investigation is under way into what happened when Mr. Akawi was interrogated in Hebron in the prison section run by the Shin Bet.

Family members, supported by left-wing members of Parliament, are demanding an autopsy, and they want an independent observer to be present during the procedure.

"We don't want more corpses, and corpses perhaps is what we're going to get from this kind of interrogation," said Leah Tzemel, an Israeli lawyer who represented Mr. Akawi.

Shops in Arab East Jerusalem closed in protest over the death, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) "expressed its preoccupation regarding the treatment of detainees undergoing investigation."

"The ICRC hopes that the Israeli authorities will take the necessary steps in order to . . . guarantee that detainees undergoing investigation are treated in accordance with the international commitments of the state of Israel," the Red Cross committee said.

Mr. Akawi was arrested Jan. 22. He was one of several dozen Palestinians rounded up in an army search for gunmen responsible for ambushes that have killed four Jewish settlers within the past two months.

Most of those arrested are alleged to support the Popular Front for theLiberation of Palestine, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization generally opposed to the current Arab-Israeli peace talks. Mr. Akawi was accused of being a member of the Front. He had been arrested in 1985 and imprisoned for 10 months for alleged membership.

Authorities acknowledge that the Shin Bet's interrogation methods often involve the use of force but say that the interrogators are legally limited to "moderate force."

The allowable methods are outlined in regulations that have never been made public.

A government commission reported in 1987 that agents regularly tortured prisoners and systematically lied in court when they denied that force was used.

The government accepted the commission's recommendation that no one be disciplined for having given false testimony in the past and apparently accepted the secret appendix outlining permissible methods of interrogation.

Mr. Akawi's case is out of the ordinary because he was seen by a judge and a team of three lawyers shortly before his death.

"This is one of those rare occasions when we really did have the chance to give the best legal care to the prisoner," said Ms. Tzemel. "Not that it helped him at all."

Mr. Akawi was one of the security prisoners brought into the Hebron military count Sunday before Judge Mookie Knobler, an army major. Ms. Tzemel asked that her client be released or, if not, transferred from the West Bank to jail in Jerusalem, where prisoners have greater legal rights.

Regulations prevented Ms. Tzemel from knowing details of the allegations against Mr. Akawi or from talking with him in the courtroom. She also could not be present when he was allowed to speak to the judge.

When Ms. Tzemel left the courtroom, according to court records she provided, Mr. Akawi complained of having been tortured.

"I heard from the detainee that he was beaten during the interrogation," Judge Knobler acknowledged, "and I saw bruises on his arms and shoulders.

"There is a serious suspicion in my heart that his complaint is a just one," the judge said.

The judge ruled in favor of Mr. Akawi remaining in detention another eight days but rejected the military's request that he be held another month. On Monday, Israel's Supreme Court turned down an appeal for Mr. Akawi's release or transfer to Jerusalem. The next day, he died in custody.

Much of the Shin Bet's notoriety dates from two cases in the 1980s. In one, the Shin Bet's director was accused of having ordered the murder of two Palestinians captured after they hijacked a bus south of Tel Aviv, in 1984.

The matter was closed in 1986 when President Chaim Herzog issued pardons to the Shin Bet director, who resigned, and to three of his deputies, who kept their jobs.

A second investigation found that Shin Bet agents had tortured an Israeli army officer convicted of treason but had denied in court that torture had occurred. The officer, who spent seven years in prison, was later cleared of the charges against him.

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