Secret Suspects

Israel keeps rights groups away from detainees

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arbitrary detention, denial of legal representation and systematic torture are nothing new in Israel’s militant campaign to prevent terror attacks against its people.During Israel’s two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon, the detention centre in the village of Khiam became notorious for the imprisonment and brutal torture not only of Hezbollah militants, but also of men, women and children who were nabbed on the flimsiest of suspicions.

But while the dark deeds at Khiam have been chalked up as another unfortunate episode in the region’s seemingly unstoppable dance with death and suffering, human rights groups are now raising serious concerns about the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) arrest and treatment of hundreds of suspected terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza.

B’Tselem, the Jerusalem-based human rights organization that monitors violations in the Occupied Territories, as well as Amnesty International have expressed alarm at the alleged torture of Palestinian prisoners.

“We have learned from an Israeli source in Ofer camp (in southwest Ramallah), an Israeli soldier, that at least in some cases detainees are tortured,” B’Tselem spokesperson Lior Yavne tells NOW. “(The source) specifically mentioned breaking the toes. Our source was not able to tell us how many cases we’re talking about, but he specifically said these are not isolated cases.”

Last week, Amnesty International said it was “concerned for the safety of more than one thousand Palestinians detained by Israeli Defence Forces,” and that “some Palestinians have reportedly been tortured by being beaten or held for prolonged periods in painful positions.”

Amnesty also raised concerns about a military order denying detainees access to lawyers and the IDF’s refusal to release the names of the detainees or where they’re being held.

“The families of the detainees have not received such information and do not know whether their relatives are dead or alive following unconfirmed reports that some Palestinians taken by the IDF were extrajudicially executed,” the Amnesty release said.

Amnesty completed its own three- person research mission to the West Bank on March 19. The allegations of torture would have been corroborated by at least two independent sources for Amnesty to raise them publicly.

“We have, over years and years, developed contacts that we feel to be reliable, credible contacts within Israel so even when we’re not there we continue to receive information from them” says Amnesty Canada’s secretary general, Alex Neve.

Last week, Israel’s supreme court threw out a petition brought by B’Tselem and three other Israeli human rights groups seeking to stop the use of all physical force during interrogations at Ofer and to immediately allow detainees access to lawyers.

The court upheld the practice of holding prisoners for up to two months without giving them access to legal counsel.

“The court accepted the state’s claim that under the current situation of warfare and due to the large number of detainees and the necessity to examine their identities, it is therefore possible for them to (prevent) detainees from seeing lawyers,” says Yavne.

As well, since the human rights groups did not produce any affidavits from prisoners supporting their allegation of torture, the court upheld the state’s contention that it was impossible to investigate.

But, says Yavne, “When you don’t give lawyers access to detainees, it’s fairly impossible to take any affidavit.” As well, “the Israeli authorities had some 48 hours between the filing of our petition and the hearing at court to go to Ofer to talk to the interrogators, the interrogatees and the medical staff to check if they’ve seen anything strange. They didn’t do that.”

NOW contacted the Israeli embassy in Ottawa for a government response to the allegations, but was only told by spokesperson David Cooper that “there is a law against torture in Israel now.”

IDF major general Dan Harel told a press conference Sunday (April 7) that they had arrested approximately 2,000 suspects since the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield nearly two weeks earlier. Between 600 and 700 Palestinians, including members of the Palestinian security force and civilians, have been released.

Of the 1,300 still detained, “about 600 have proven connections with terror organizations. Of them, about 60 to 70 are major terrorists who were behind or committed terrorist actions within Israel and the territories, murdering hundreds of civilians.”

That number doesn’t include the 1,136 Palestinians who were already being detained by the IDF as of March.

Canada’s milquetoast foreign affairs department, fresh from voting against sending United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to monitor the violence in the Occupied Territories, did not have any comment specifically on the allegations of torture or the denial of due process to Palestinian detainees.

“We’re deeply concerned about the human rights conditions,” is all Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Nancy Bergeron can offer.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is fully expecting access to interview and register Palestinian detainees and arrange visits for their families as per a long-standing agreement with Israel.

“The agreement is that we see these people after a period of two weeks after their arrest,” says ICRC spokesperson Vincent Lusser from Geneva. “We certainly expect to have a continued capacity to visit these people after two weeks and during their whole detention.”

Family visits have halted since the IDF severely restricted movement in the Palestinian territories earlier this year. During visits, the ICRC interviews prison directors, inspects prison conditions and talks privately with detainees before making recommendations, which are not made public.

Says Lusser, “We go in as an external observer and make recommendations under the assumption that states having signed the Geneva Conventions will want these things to work.”

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