Background Briefing Arabic Translation
Israeli High Court of Justice Torture Trial

On Wednesday, 26 May 1999 the Israeli Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, will hear testimony challenging the legality of secret interrogation procedures used by the Israeli General Security Service (GSS). Since the government-appointed Landau Committee first provided official authorization for these procedures in 1987, GSS torture techniques have caused the death of at least one Palestinian detainee and many more cases of permanent injuries.

Israel is a party to both the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Both treaties prohibit torture under all circumstances, even during a state of war or other public emergency. Both treaties also require states to take effective legislative, administrative, or judicial measures to ensure that this prohibition is enforced.

Human Rights Watch calls upon the High Court to meet its responsibility as the highest judicial authority by acting decisively to prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in Israel.

Rather than living up to Israel's treaty obligations, the High Court, the Knesset, and the government of Israel have consistently failed to take effective action to stop torture. The High Court has routinely accepted the government's argument that the use of physical force in interrogation is justified to obtain urgently needed information in order to save lives or property. In past rulings on requests for interim injunctions against the use of physical force in interrogating a specific individual, the High Court has explicitly stated its unwillingness to express an opinion on the legality of particular interrogation procedures.

The cases now before the High Court directly challenge the legality of these interrogation procedures, already found by the CAT and ICCPR treaty-monitoring bodies to constitute torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The government's position is that the use of these prohibited procedures is not illegal in Israeli law, is justified by urgent security needs, and in any case do not meet the threshold of "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" required by the definition of torture in the CAT.

Both the CAT and the ICCPR explicitly prohibit the argument that public emergencies, or any other reason, can be a justification for torture. Israel's use of "ticking bomb" arguments is thus clearly inadmissible under both treaties. Second, these interrogation procedures are known to have caused permanent physical disability and death the argument that they are not "severe" lacks all credibility. Finally, both the CAT and the ICCPR explicitly require States to amend their domestic legislation to prohibit practices, such as these interrogation methods, which constitute torture. Israel has a legal obligation to prohibit the use of these interrogation procedures under all circumstances, without exception.

Wednesday's hearing will be the fourth time the High Court has heard arguments in this case. In earlier sessions some Justices have expressed an unwillingness to rule on the principle of the case, suggesting that if Israel wants to outlaw torture it is the Knesset's responsibility to enact legislation. The Knesset, like the executive branch, does have a responsibility to take measures to prohibit torture, but its failure to do so in no way absolves the High Court from fulfilling its own responsibility. In fact, the High Court's obligation to prohibit torture is even greater in light of the other branches of government's failure to act. Human Rights Watch urges the High Court to fulfill that obligation by ruling unambiguously to prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under all circumstances.

For additional information contact:
In Jerusalem -- Clarisa Bencomo 052.865.617 (mobile) 02. 583.3530
In Washington, DC -- Joe Stork 202.612.4327
Related Material

Israel Uses Torture, Detention, and Hostage-taking to Violate Civil and Political Rights
HRW Report, August 1998