Prisoner Rights vs. National Security

"A democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back."

Below are excerpted sections from a Sept. 6, 1999, Israeli Supreme Court decision outlawing the use of torture in interrogations by the country’s General Security Service (GSS). These sections of the lengthy decision illustrate the difficulty the court faced in balancing the individual suspect’s rights with the need to prevent terrorist attacks about which that person might have information.

Background:Prisoner torture


1. The state of Israel has been engaged in an unceasing struggle for both its very existence and security, from the day of its founding. Terrorist organizations have established as their goal Israel’s annihilation. Terrorist acts and the general disruption of order are their means of choice. In employing such methods, these groups do not distinguish between civilian and military targets. They carry out terrorist attacks in which scores are murdered in public areas, public transportation, city squares and centers, theaters and coffee shops. They do not distinguish between men, women and children. They act out of cruelty and without mercy (For an in depth description of this phenomenon see the Report of the Commission of Inquiry Regarding the GSS’ Interrogation Practices with Respect to Hostile Terrorist Activities headed by (ret. ) Justice M. Landau, 1987 – hereinafter, “Commission of Inquiry Report”) published in the Landau Book 269, 276 (Volume 1, 1995).

The facts presented before this Court reveal that 121 people died in terrorist attacks between 1-1-96 to 14-5-98. Seven hundred and seven people were injured. A large number of those killed and injured were victims of harrowing suicide bombings in the heart of Israel’s cities. Many attacks–including suicide bombings, attempts to detonate car bombs, kidnappings of citizens and soldiers, attempts to highjack buses, murders, the placing of explosives, etc.–were prevented due to the measures taken by the authorities responsible for fighting the above described hostile terrorist activities on a daily basis. The main body responsible for fighting terrorism is the GSS.

In order to fulfill this function, the GSS also investigates those suspected of hostile terrorist activities. The purpose of these interrogations is, among others, to gather information regarding terrorists and their organizing methods for the purpose of thwarting and preventing them from carrying out these terrorist attacks. In the context of these interrogations, GSS investigators also make use of physical means. The legality of these practices is being examined before this Court in these applications….

The Means Employed for Interrogation Purposes

…First, a reasonable investigation is necessarily one free of torture, free of cruel, inhuman treatment of the subject and free of any degrading handling whatsoever. There is a prohibition on the use of “brutal or inhuman means” in the course of an investigation (F.H. 3081/91 Kozli v. The State of Israel, 35(4) P.D. 441 at 446). Human dignity also includes the dignity of the suspect being interrogated. (Compare H.C. 355/59 Catlan v. Prison Security Services, 34(3) P.D. 293 at 298 and C.A.4463/94 Golan v. Prison Security Services, 50(4) P.D. 136).

This conclusion is in perfect accord with (various) International Law treaties–to which Israel is a signatory–which prohibit the use of torture, “cruel, inhuman treatment” and “degrading treatment” (See M. Evans and R. Morgan, Preventing Torture(1998) at 61; N.S. Rodley, The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law (1987) at 63). These prohibitions are “absolute.” There are no exceptions to them and there is no room for balancing. Indeed, violence directed at a suspect’s body or spirit does not constitute a reasonable investigation practice. The use of violence during investigations can potentially lead to the investigator being held criminally liable. (See, for example, article 277 of the Penal Law: Pressure on a Public Servant; supra at 130, 134; Cr. A. 64/86 Ashash v. The State of Israel (unpublished)).

Second, a reasonable investigation is likely to cause discomfort; it may result in insufficient sleep; the conditions under which it is conducted risk being unpleasant. Indeed, it is possible to conduct an effective investigation without resorting to violence. Within the confines of the law, it is permitted to resort to various machinations and specific sophisticated activities which serve investigators today (both for Police and GSS); similar investigations–accepted in the most progressive of societies–can be effective in achieve their goals.

In the end result, the legality of an investigation is deduced from the propriety of its purpose and from its methods. Thus, for instance, sleep deprivation for a prolonged period, or sleep deprivation at night when this is not necessary to the investigation time-wise, may be deemed a use of an investigation method which surpasses the least restrictive means.

A Final Word

This decision opens with a description of the difficult reality in which Israel finds herself security wise. We shall conclude this judgment by re-addressing that harsh reality. We are aware that this decision does not ease dealing with that reality. This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it.

Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties.

This having been said, there are those who argue that Israel’s security problems are too numerous, thereby requiring the authorization to use physical means. If it will nonetheless be decided that it is appropriate for Israel, in light of its security difficulties to sanction physical means in interrogations (and the scope of these means which deviate from the ordinary investigation rules), this is an issue that must be decided by the legislative branch, which represents the people. We do not take any stand on this matter at this time. It is there that various considerations must be weighed. The pointed debate must occur there. It is there that the required legislation may be passed, provided, of course, that a law infringing upon a suspect’s liberty “befitting the values of the state of Israel,” is enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required (Article 8 to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty).

… Deciding these applications weighed heavy on this Court. True, from the legal perspective, the road before us is smooth. We are, however, part of Israeli society. Its problems are known to us and we live its history. We are not isolated in an ivory tower. We live the life of this country. We are aware of the harsh reality of terrorism in which we are, at times, immersed. Our apprehension is that this decision will hamper the ability to properly deal with terrorists and terrorism, disturbs us.

We are, however, judges. Our brethren require us to act according to the law. This is equally the standard that we set for ourselves. When we sit to judge, we are being judged. Therefore, we must act according to our purest conscience when we decide the law. The words of the Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Justice Landau, speak well to our purposes:

“We possess proper sources upon which to construct our judgments and have no need, and while judging, are forbidden from, involving our personal views as citizens of this country in our decisions. Still, great is the fear that the Court shall be perceived as though it had abandoned its proper place and descended to the midst of public debate, and that its decision making will be obstructed by one side of the population’s uproar and by the other side’s absolute and emotional rejection.

“In that sense, I see myself here as someone whose duty is to decide according to the law in all cases legally brought before the Court. I am strictly bound by this duty. As I am well aware in advance that the public at large will not pay attention to the legal reasoning, but to the end result alone. And that the Court’s proper status, as an institution above partisan debates, risks being harmed. What can we do, as this is our function and role as judges” (H.C. 390/79 Dawikat v. The State of Israel, 34(1) P.D. 1 at 4)….

Consequently… we declare that the GSS does not have the authority to “shake” a man, hold him in the “Shabach” position [hands tied behind the back of a chair in a painful position with a dark hood thrown over the head], force him into a “frog crouch” position and deprive him of sleep in a manner other than that which is inherently required by the interrogation.

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