High Court upholds flawed procedure on torture investigations

The High Court of Justice upheld the procedure regarding complaints of torture against Shin Bet agents, despite the fact that this procedure resulted in no investigations after nearly 600 complaints

The High Court of Justice has upheld a controversial procedure governing investigations into allegations of abuse and torture against employees of Israel’s General Security Service, better known as the Shin Bet. According to this procedure, all complaints, usually filed by Palestinians who the Shin Bet detained and interrogated on suspicion of terrorism, are first examined by a Shin Bet official, working under the professional supervision of the Attorney General’s Office. This examination includes interviews with the complainants and the accused agents and review of relevant documentation. The case can proceed to a full criminal investigation only if this official rules that there are grounds to do so: if he finds no such grounds, the case is closed.

This procedure has been strongly criticized by human rights organizations, which submitted the petition that was rejected yesterday. The petition was drafted and litigated by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), joined by more than a dozen Palestinian complainants, and many Israeli human rights organizations.

The petition and the court ruling (see here for the full text in Hebrew) deal with numerous issues of legal interpretation and organizational structure. However, the most relevant fact may actually be a number: zero. That is the number of complaints that resulted in a criminal investigation, out of about 600 monitored by PCATI. Zero is not the number of convictions, nor even the number of indictments. It is the number of cases that were deemed worthy of even opening a professional criminal investigation by an external body. This record is even worse than that of the flawed mechanism of accountability regarding complaints against settlers or IDF soldiers.

The High Court ruling does not seriously address the remarkable outcome of the Shin Bet’s procedure. After plowing through some 26 pages of convoluted legalese, its basic argument appears to be that the system of investigating complaints against the Shin Bet is “evolving,” and the court does not see fit to interject itself into this evolutionary process. It argues that the Shin Bet has improved on its appalling standards of opacity and unaccountability since the 1980s, and chooses to believe the state’s promises that various additional improvements are in the works.

The court also suggested that the state respond within a month to individual petitioners’ requests to reconsider the Shin Bet’s decision not to open an investigation into their complaints. PCATI, in response, criticized the court’s refusal to label Shin Bet investigation methods as “torture” (which, under international law, would have compelled a criminal investigation in all such cases), but expressed hope that the decision regarding individual complainants might lead to proper legal recourse in those cases. Clearly, the track record on this issue is not encouraging.

Postscript: The English language story on the ruling by Haaretz omits the fact that no criminal investigation has been opened out of 600 cases, and does not include PCATI’s response to the ruling. Both pieces of information appear in the Hebrew version of the same article. This is not the first time something like this has happened.