The Unspeakable Issue: Torture, Security and Human Rights

22 April 2009 By New Israel Fund

Eliahu Frank Abram, an American by birth and long-time human rights activist, serves as the Legal Director for NIF grantee the Public Committee against Torture in Israel (PCATI) and was among the team of lawyers instrumental in winning the landmark 1999 High Court ruling ordering Israel’s security forces to stop torturing detainees to obtain information.  He spoke with NIF News from Jerusalem last month.

What does PCATI do?

The Israeli Security Agency (GSS) responsible for protecting Israel has a hard and crucial task in trying to prevent the very serious threat of terrorism.  They do work that is crucial for the security of every Israeli.  But like many security organizations, there is tremendous temptation for them to overstep the boundaries.  We are trying to prevent the trampling of fundamental human rights and preserve human dignity in the course of security investigations.  We have an international mandate - Israel is a party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment – and we see that document as our platform. 

What did the 1999 High Court ruling on torture mean in reality?

The great victory of this organization, together with other organizations - all of which were supported by NIF - was the 1999 decision of the Supreme Court, which held that the GSS has no authority to use physical means in interrogations.  It was a courageous decision by the Court.  Since then, however, there are two problems: A lack of compliance - and our organization is trying to force the government, GSS and police to comply with both the letter and the spirit of this decision -- and gaps in the decision.  For example, the Court held that if it’s essential due to the urgency of the investigation, you can interrogate a suspect for long hours; this is an example where the GSS has taken the exception and typically will interrogate suspects by depriving them of sleep even when the only real purpose is breaking their will.  

What is the public opinion in Israel on the use of force in interrogations?

One of the problems in Israel is that the understanding of human rights and its importance is skin deep.  Particularly when faced with security vs. human rights, and of someone who is not a Jew and is accused of being an enemy of the Jewish people.  We’re trying to educate the public by finding ways to reach out to people to get a deeper understanding of what’s at stake.  We’re not attacking Israel; we are attacking the failures and calling for reforms, which will ultimately strengthen Israel.

Has on the issue of American use of torture at the Guantanamo Bay facility had any impact on the issue in Israel?

The problem with the US abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is that the US’ moral authority to tell other countries to stop torturing has evaporated.   But we can teach the US through our legislation and litigation.  In Israel, a country confronted with the gravest possible threats, we continue to maintain that judges have to oversee what is happening.  This is what Bush was trying to circumvent.