In U.S. court, Israelis deny torturing

Judge to rule on allowing statements made by American accused of aiding Hamas


Appearing for the first time in an American courtroom, officers in Israel's secretive anti-terrorism agency denied that they tortured a suburban Chicago man in 1993, calling his claims "imaginative" and "lies," according to a newly released transcript of a closed hearing.

Testifying in March in Chicago under code names, Maj. "Haim" and Capt. "Nadav" of the Israeli Security Agency defended their interrogation of alleged Hamas official Muhammad Salah. They disputed his claims that he was beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to sit in painful positions during more than three months in Israeli custody.

Salah's claim that he was slapped and forced to sit - handcuffed and hooded - on a small, tilted chair is "completely imaginative," said Haim, who led the interrogation unit at the prison where Salah was held.

When Haim was asked whether Salah was ever stripped and forced to stand naked and handcuffed, he replied, through an interpreter: "This is all the fruit of his own imagination. I am disgusted by even talking about it."

Nadav, a deputy to Haim, echoed the denials and, when pressed about reports that his agency mistreated Palestinians, said: "I am not responsible for lies spread by other people."

The two agents testified at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve to determine whether Salah's statements to the interrogators could be used against him at his trial in October. Federal prosecutors charged him in 2003 with helping to funnel millions of dollars to Hamas, a militant Islamic group that leads the Palestinian Authority government.

Salah's attorneys contend that the interrogators forced Salah to make a false confession. They have called human-rights experts and alleged victims of torture to testify on Salah's behalf.

Testimony in the hearing, which was spread over two months, ended last week. It is not clear when St. Eve will rule.

The hearing has drawn the interest of legal and terrorism experts because it addresses the issue of how U.S. courts should treat confessions obtained by foreign governments.

The Chicago Tribune and Islamic and civil rights groups argued against closing the courtroom for all of the agents' testimony. But St. Eve sided with prosecutors, who expressed concerns about the Israelis' safety and the need to protect classified information.

Those security concerns were evident in redactions to the more than 1,500-page transcript released last month. Dozens of pages were blanked out to protect what federal prosecutors deemed classified information.

The redactions included four blank pages after a question about the use of "moderate pressure" in interrogations and seven pages after a query about a "closet"-size cell. More than 30 blank pages followed questions about an Israeli ruse, in which collaborators posed as Palestinian prisoners to obtain information.

Even the agents' Israeli lawyers used code names, appearing on the transcript only as "Mr. Eli" and "Ms. Neta," as did an Israeli court security officer, "Mr. Alon."

The hearing featured an unusual courtroom contest in which veteran Israeli interrogators spent days answering questions from Salah attorneys Michael Deutsch and Robert Bloom.

Questioned by Deutsch, Haim acknowledged that the agents had not allowed Salah to see a lawyer. Haim also agreed that he had spoken to Salah "emphatically" about his early refusal to give a statement and told him he faced "several years" in prison.

Haim acknowledged that the Landau Commission, an Israeli investigative body in the 1980s, had found that Israeli Security Agency supervisors had tolerated lying by agents. But Haim said he had never testified falsely in court.

When questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Ferguson, Haim said that Salah received favored treatment because he was a U.S. citizen.

Haim said Salah's claim that he provided nonmilitary aid to Palestinians fell apart under questioning. For example, he said Salah had claimed that he delivered $60,000 to a Palestinian man to help start a legitimate business, but Salah had no paperwork for the transaction.

Haim said Salah provided information about the location of the body of a dead Israeli soldier that, while not fully accurate, suggested that Salah knew secret Hamas information.

Michael Higgins writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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