Were Abu Ghraib abuses learned from Israel?

Matthew Kalman

San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Jerusalem -- Palestinians who have spent time in Israeli detention say the images of sexual abuse and humiliation from Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison are painful reminders of their own experience at the hands of Israeli interrogators.

Some, like Hisham Abdel Razzaq, the Palestinian minister for prisoners, believe the similarity is more than coincidental.

"I am inclined to think that the Americans copied the Israeli techniques, " said Abdel Razzaq. "I can't prove it in an objective manner, but the striking similarities are overwhelming."

But veterans of Israel's Shin Bet secret service, which conducts most of the country's anti-terrorist investigations, scoff at such charges and say sexual humiliation of the type seen in photos from Abu Ghraib is not even a useful tool in interrogating suspects.

"Under questioning, a terrorist should be made to yield," said Ami Ayalon, a former director of the Shin Bet. "Sexual abuse goes too far by breaking him, so it's not an option. A broken man will say anything. That information is worthless."

The Shin Bet and other Israeli law enforcement bodies operate under detailed interrogation guidelines set in a 1999 Supreme Court ruling, which resulted from a lawsuit filed by human rights advocates. Israel is a signatory to the 1991 International Convention Against Torture.

Under the ruling, interrogators, who had been given permission to use "moderate physical and psychological pressure" to extract information from detainees, were barred from a long list of coercive practices reported by former prisoners. Specifically, the ruling prohibited violent shaking, sleep deprivation, hooding and exposure to extreme temperatures, including freezing baths in winter, as well as a form of constraint known as shabah, in which the prisoner is tightly shackled for long periods.

Loopholes in the law allow the Shin Bet to use "moderate physical pressure," including sensory deprivation and shaking that stops short of causing permanent damage, on "ticking bombs" -- suspects it believes have information about imminent attacks.

Both Israeli security officials and human rights campaigners who have closely monitored the treatment of prisoners in Israeli detention say the abuses at Abu Ghraib were categorically different from techniques used by Israelis.

"I think the Americans have their own experience with interrogation. They don't need the Israeli security service for such matters," said Hannah Friedman, executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, or PCATI, one of the groups whose lawsuit led to the 1999 court ruling.

Friedman said a couple of cases documented by her group involved apparent sexual humiliation, but not on the systematic level apparent from the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib.

"We have some evidence of prisoners or detainees stripped naked and evidence of one Israeli prisoner who was stripped four times, but not like the pictures we saw from Abu Ghraib," said Friedman. "Most of the time when prisoners are stripped, it is before they are moved from one location to another and done on the pretext of searching for weapons, not during interrogation. For Muslim people, it is very degrading because it is against their religious values."

Ayalon insisted that Shin Bet interrogators exhibit more "professionalism" than the U.S. military police accused of mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib and are more sensitive to Muslim culture. Interrogators undergo almost three years of Arabic and psychology training before confronting their first suspect, he said.

Some Palestinian and other Arab prisoners held by Israel have alleged more serious sexual abuse. Mustafa Dirani, a leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah who was released in a prisoner swap earlier this year, said he was raped by a military intelligence officer he knew as "George," but the charge was never proved.

Friedman said that abuses dipped after the Supreme Court ruling, but they have risen since the Palestinians began a wave of suicide bomb attacks against Israel in 2001.

"In September 2001, PCATI estimated that the total number of detainees being subjected to torture and other forms of ill treatment reached 'only' dozens," the committee said in a report last year. But the report continued: "Since the beginning of 2003 there has been a sharp rise in the torture, ill treatment, humiliation and incarceration in inhuman conditions of Palestinian detainees by the Shin Bet.''

Friedman's committee continues to voice concern about Israeli interrogation techniques, including the alleged use of banned techniques such as shabah, in which a prisoner is locked in tight handcuffs and leg irons and forced to sit in a contorted position with a stinking sack over the head and loud music playing nonstop.

Abed al-Ahmar, a Palestinian human rights worker from Bethlehem who has been detained for most of the past three years on suspicion -- as yet unproven -- of being involved with the banned Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said he experienced shabah even after its use was banned.

"The shabah position caused terrible tightening in my back muscles, and I felt that my stomach was being ripped out from my body," said al-Ahmar.

Israelis are divided on the use of torture, but most agree that it is permissible in the case of "ticking bombs." Even before the current intifada began in September 2000, 64 out of 120 members of Israel's Knesset parliament said they supported the use of torture in questioning suspected terrorists.

The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group says that with the rise in suicide attacks, Israelis are becoming less sensitive to the issue of maltreating prisoners. "Since the start of the (latest) intifada, there are even more arrests, which means more interrogations and illegal detentions, and at the same time greater silence among the public in its compliance with Israeli violations of human rights," the group said in a recent report.

The Palestinian rumor mill has been rife with accusations that Israel was involved in the Baghdad prison abuses, but Yossi Melman, a journalist who is regarded as one of Israel's best-informed experts on intelligence matters, dismisses such allegations.

"U.S. documents (related to the prison abuse scandal) and Shin Bet history clearly show that Israel is not aiding the United States in the torture of Iraqi prisoners," he said.

Indeed, some former Israeli intelligence officers derided practices seen at Abu Ghraib, such as photographing nude prisoners, which observers have suggested was intended to allow intelligence officers to blackmail detainees and encourage them to turn informant after their release.

"An informant risks being caught and killed by his countrymen, so he will only be effective if he works of his own free will, feeling it is worth his while," said Menachem Landau, a retired Shin Bet officer who supervised Palestinian collaborators. "Someone acting out of fear will be unreliable and could even end up attacking his handler to clear his name."

Micah Halpern, author of "What You Need to Know About: Terror," agreed that the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse did not serve any useful purpose.

"What happened in that Iraqi prison was not interrogation -- it was intimidation for the sake of intimidation,'' Halpern said. "It was gratuitous humiliation. It was for kicks."