Israel tortures Palestinian prisoners despite peace accords, rights group says

June 15, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Neither peace agreements nor public scrutiny has lessened the systematic torture and ill treatment of Palestinian prisoners by Israeli authorities, according to a 316-page report to be released today by an international human rights organization.

While interrogating an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Palestinians each year, the report says, the Israeli army and the General Security Service "engage in a systematic pattern of ill-treatment and torture -- according to internationally recognized definitions of the terms. . . . This pattern has continued in 1994, despite the peace process now under way."

The report faults the government for failing to correct the abuses.

"Israel's political leadership cannot claim ignorance that ill-treatment is the norm in interrogation centers," the report says. "The number of victims is too large, and the abuses are too systematic."

The author of the report is Human Rights Watch, a New-York based organization that has recently published similar volumes on death squads in Brazil, political prisoners in China, genocide against Iraqi Kurds and war crimes by all three sides in the fighting in Bosnia.

Responding to an advance copy of the report yesterday, Israeli Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, in charge of the occupied West Bank, said at a news briefing, "Forget it. It is not true. We are doing our best to prevent it and to behave like human beings.

"Unfortunately, there are a few occasions when soldiers and policemen are wrong, very wrong, in their behavior," General Biran added. But he said that no one should generalize from such aberrations.

The report cites a gradual "bureaucratization of torture" since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising 6 1/2 years ago. This has meant a greater emphasis on psychological methods and controlled physical punishment designed to inflict pain without leaving signs, it says.

With most questioning extending "over days and very often for three or four weeks," the report says, "the methods used in nearly all interrogations are prolonged sleep deprivation; prolonged sight deprivation using blindfolds or tight-fitting hoods; forced, prolonged maintenance of body positions that grow increasingly painful; and verbal threats and insults."

Other common techniques include confinement in closet-sized spaces, prolonged exposure to extreme cold or heat and refusing to let detainees use the toilet. And, the report adds, "In a large number of cases, detainees are also moderately or severely beaten."

Human Rights Watch investigators compiled the report from interviews with defense lawyers, four Israeli soldiers and 36 Palestinians interrogated since June 1992 -- 10 of them since September's signing of the Declaration of Principles by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It also was based on court testimony by agents of the General Security Service, or Shabak.

Israel began acknowledging the issue of abused prisoners a year ago, when legislators and citizens charged that torture had become widespread and systematic. But the reform effort has made little progress. Bills introduced to outlaw torture and efforts to restrict interrogation techniques have stalled.

In the meantime, Israel signed the September agreement with the PLO in Washington and an agreement last month for limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

The progress of peace negotiations apparently only has changed the type of Palestinian more likely to be arrested and interrogated, Eric Goldstein, principal editor of the report, said in an interview.

"In the cases we've seen since March, the proportion of people from Hamas and Islamic Jihad [two extremist groups sometimes at odds with the PLO] is now higher, and the proportion of Fatah [a wing of the PLO] people is now lower."

Tamar Pelleg-Sryck, staff attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that she is not surprised that interrogation techniques haven't changed.

"I know of cases like this from a week ago," she said. "I don't think that anything has changed since September, and I don't think it will in the future. It is a skill practiced by those who have it -- the interrogators. They have no reason whatsoever to change, and the government has not made them."

Besides recommending that Israel overhaul its laws to stop the practice, the report recommends that the U.S. government confront Israel on the issue, "because it calls into question the very legality of American military and economic aid to Israel."

In related developments:

* Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin accused the new Palestinian police force in the Gaza Strip of violating the self-rule agreement by arresting 26 people suspected of collaborating with Israeli authorities during the military occupation.

He hinted that the action might affect Israel's completing the release of 5,000 imprisoned Palestinians, as called for in the agreement. So far, about 2,000 have been released. Another lTC 7,600 remain in detention.

* A Palestinian policeman in Gaza died of a gunshot wound, the first to die in action since the Palestinians took control five weeks ago. Israel Radio reported that he was killed by his own gun when it misfired. But one policeman told Reuters that the officer was shot in the back.

* A PLO official said that Israel has told Palestinians in Jericho to stop planning a small airport that Yasser Arafat had planned to use, saying that the site was in disputed territory. He also said that Israel ordered a Palestinian investor to stop building a $1.5 million hotel, saying that the land was under its control.

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