By Virginia N. Sherry, associate director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch
Published in Arabic-language daily newspaper al-Hayat (London)
October 28 marks the Day for the Closure of Khiam Prison in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon. Disclosures in an affidavit that the Israeli ministry of defense submitted last month to Israel's High Court of Justice confirm what Lebanese and international campaigners to stop torture at this prison have said for years -- Israeli intelligence agents have direct involvement with Lebanese interrogators at Khiam. The defense ministry's admissions must be incorporated into regional and international efforts to pressure Israel to close Khiam and hold accountable Lebanese and Israelis responsible for systematic acts of torture that have occurred there over the past two decades.
The carefully worded affidavit attempts to distance Israel from direct legal responsibility for crimes committed at Khiam, describing the prison in the present tense only, with no mention of Israel's role there in past years. It states that "the interrogators, the jailers, and all of the staff of the facility are Lebanese." It mentions repeatedly that the prison is administered, maintained, and guarded by the South Lebanon Army (SLA), Israel's surrogate Lebanese militia that it finances and arms. It also notes that the SLA has a "common hierarchic military structure" and is headed by Lebanese commander General Antoine Lahd. The affidavit concedes that Israel "has influence over the SLA," even to the extent of forcing suspension of visits of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the prison, but maintains that matters concerning Khiam's detainees are "under the responsibility and discretion of the SLA" and "not within the authority" of the Israeli defense ministry.
Even if this is the official line, Israel is obligated as a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to investigate Gen. Lahd, current and former SLA commanders of the prison, and other militiamen responsible for the crimes of inflicting, instigating, and acquiescing to acts of torture at Khiam. If it is necessary to take Gen. Lahd and other potential suspects into custody to carry out this investigation, Israeli authorities should do so. Since Israel does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon, the torture convention requires Israel to exercise criminal jurisdiction. Because Gen. Lahd is also known to travel to France, where his immediate family reportedly resides, authorities there are likewise obligated under the convention to initiate an investigation of Gen. Lahd and if necessary detain him when he again sets foot on French soil.
The defense ministry's affidavit also includes the important admission that there is a "connection" between Israel's domestic intelligence agency, the General Security Service (GSS, or Shin Bet), and the SLA "as far as concerns the gathering of intelligence and interrogations that are geared toward preventing terrorist attacks in the security zone against IDF and SLA soldiers." It states further that "GSS personnel cooperate with members of the SLA, and even assist them by means of professional guidance and training, however they do not participate in the frontal interrogation of detainees."
Gen. Halutz said in the affidavit that "GSS personnel hold meetings several times annually with SLA interrogators" at Khiam, and that from January 1 - July 30, 1999, GSS personnel visited the prison three times. The GSS has a sordid, well-documented history of torturing Palestinian detainees from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Its involvement with interrogators at Khiam in occupied south Lebanon -- who have long meted out torture at least as brutal as that systematically administered to Palestinians -- confirms allegations that former Lebanese prisoners and their advocates have been making for years. Just as Israeli authorities have a legal obligation to investigate and prosecute all those responsible for the torture of Palestinian prisoners, they are required to take similar action with respect to GSS personnel who trained SLA militiamen in torture techniques, supervised their activities, or otherwise were complicit in acts of torture that took place at Khiam.
Gen. Halutz did not address the issue of even more conspicuous and direct Israeli involvement in interrogation and torture at Khiam in the past, a subject on which former Lebanese detainees have persuasive and copious testimony. His affidavit pointedly states that GSS personnel are not currently involved in face-to-face interrogations of detainees. But there is ample testimonial evidence from former Khiam prisoners about the more direct Israeli role in the past which merits thorough and transparent investigation. For example, a prisoner who was released in May 1998, after eleven years of detention without charge, told me that Israelis were ubiquitous at the prison in the 1980s: "We saw them all the time. This changed in the last few years, when we only heard them." He added that nine detainees died in custody while he was imprisoned, some of them from gross medical neglect, including Assad Bazzi in 1988 and Haytham Dabaja in 1995. Another former prisoner who was released in August 1998 claimed that Israeli intelligence operatives visited Khiam and reviewed investigation files. "Sometimes they toured the prison, and we were ordered to turn our faces to the wall," he said in an interview in Beirut. Rasmiya Fawzi Jaber, a woman who was detained from January 1990 to June 1991 and tortured, told me that at that time "Israelis came on a daily basis and supervised what was going on. An Israeli officer named Ibrahim attended the interrogation sessions."
Another former prisoner, Ibrahim Qalash, detained without charge in Khiam from 1985 to 1990, said that two Israelis who spoke heavily accented Arabic interrogated him about twenty times during a sixty-day period. He described how he was hanged from his bound wrists for long periods and electric-shocked on his fingers, feet, and ears. "The Israelis would start asking questions, and then call in Lebanese and instruct them on the type of torture to use," he told me. Qalash also testified that one of his Israeli interrogators once became "fed up" and told the Lebanese militiamen present: "Take him and do whatever you want with him." He said that his worst experience was "being suspended from my wrists outside and hearing the cries of people in the interrogation room. You could tell the type of torture from the screams. When they used electricity, the first thing you heard was a high-pitched cry." Qalash was a witness to the circumstances of the death of Ali Hamzeh in 1985, who he said was hanged naked on a cold night and found dead the next morning.
It is indisputable that systematic torture occurred in Khiam. And the continuing partnership between Israel and the SLA on matters related to this prison implicates Lebanese and Israelis with legal responsibility for criminal actions. In addition to the periodic visits of GSS personnel, the defense ministry's affidavit admitted that Israel and the SLA "consult each other regarding the arrest and release of people in the Khiam facility" and that "information from the interrogations in Khiam is transferred by the SLA to Israeli security forces." The international community must insist that Israel not turn a blind eye to its complicity in torture at Khiam, which now includes admitted use of information yielded from abusive interrogations. Israel is obligated under international law to hold accountable and prosecute its own citizens and Lebanese nationals who participated in or condoned acts of torture at Khiam. If Israeli authorities refuse to act on this legal obligation, countries that are state parties to the torture convention definitely should.