Human Rights News

Israel: Letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon  
 
Brussels, July 19, 2001  
His Excellency Ariel Sharon  
Prime Minister  
Israel  
 
Dear Prime Minister Sharon,  
 
Human Rights Watch is writing with regard to the appointment of Carmi Gillon as Israel's new ambassador to Denmark. This is Mr. Gillon's first diplomatic posting, and it follows a career with Israel's General Security Services (GSS), the body responsible for conducting interrogations of persons detained by Israel on security-related charges. From 1988 to 1996, he held high-ranking positions within the agency. Extensive and well-documented allegations of torture or ill-treatment have been made against the GSS, including during the 1993-1996 period, when Mr. Gillon was head of GSS Headquarters and subsequently of the entire GSS operation. In the light of Mr. Gillon's professional history, your nomination of him to serve as ambassador is highly inappropriate, and we urge you to withdraw his appointment without delay.  
 
Since his appointment, in a number of interviews with Danish media, Mr. Gillon has spoken approvingly of the policies of "moderate physical pressure" that the GSS has routinely applied in its interrogation sessions, referring to techniques such as violent shaking and prolonged position abuse that virtually all other states and international human rights bodies have condemned as amounting to torture or ill-treatment. He further suggested that, following an Israeli high court ruling of September 1999 that such practices were not sanctioned by law, legislation should be passed to authorize those practices. In an interview in Jyllands Posten of July 9, he stated that he was himself directly implicated in about one hundred such cases.  
 
Mr. Gillon's official biography notes that from 1972 to 1988 he held "various professional duties and field command positions" in the GSS. From 1988 to 1990, he was head of the GSS Training Branch, and from 1990 to 1993 he served as head of the Northern Region Branch. In 1993 he became chief of the Headquarters Branch, and in 1995 he was named overall head of the GSS. His official service with the organization ended in 1996.  
 
Torture during interrogation of Palestinian security suspects has been a major issue in Israel for many years, and notably throughout the period when Mr. Gillon occupied high positions in the agency. In 1987, as a result of a series of scandals associated with torture of Palestinian suspects in detention, a Commission of Inquiry headed by then-Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau concluded that "exertion of a moderate measure of physical pressure" should be allowed in interrogations. In contrast to the prevailing situation, this "moderate physical pressure" should have "clear boundaries," which were detailed in an annex to the report that still remains secret. The guidelines reportedly included severe shaking, shackling detainees in painful positions for prolonged periods, sleep and sensory deprivation, exposure to temperature extremes, and psychological pressures. The Landau Commission also set up a ministerial review committee to review the guidelines periodically, and called for the State Comptroller to assume responsibility for investigating complaints of abuse.  
 
Numerous Israeli and international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, maintained that the "moderate physical pressure" allowed by the Landau Commission constituted torture as defined in the Convention against Torture, which Israel ratified in 1991. The Convention categorically prohibits any use of torture under any circumstances. The United Nations Committee against Torture, which reviews the reports and practices of states parties to the Convention, concluded in April 1994 that "'moderate physical pressure' as a lawful mode of interrogation is completely unacceptable to this Committee."  
 
Torture is further considered a "grave breach" of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In May 1992 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) took the unusual step of stating publicly that "means of physical and psychological pressure are being used that constitute a violation of the Convention," and deeply regretted that its reports and presentations on this subject at high levels "have been to no avail."  
 
Controversies over Israel's routine use of torture in interrogation were heightened by widespread reports and official findings that the Landau Commission's guidelines were being extensively breached, a fact concerning which Mr. Gillon must have been aware. A May 1991 investigation into violence in military interrogation centers, headed by Maj. Gen. Rafael Vardi, recommended transferring the interrogation mandate from the military (Israel Defense Force, IDF), "which was not meant to interrogate civilians." An investigation by the Ministry of Justice into GSS interrogation practices, also in May 1991, reportedly found extensive "deviations" from the Landau Commission guidelines. An audit of GSS practices by the State Comptroller, covering the 1988-1992 period-i.e., the years of the first intifada-also found extensive "deviations" from the Landau recommendations and GSS regulations, especially in Gaza but in other facilities as well. The Comptroller concluded that these violations did not stem from ignorance of those rules and regulations: the "deviations" were committed by "veteran interrogators" on a serious and systematic basis. (The Comptroller's audit was submitted to the Knesset Subcommittee on Intelligence Services in 1995; a summary was made public only in January 2000, following the September 1999 High Court ruling outlawing the Landau Commission rules.)  
 
According to Israeli press reports, citing the State Attorney, the GSS interrogated some 23,000 Palestinians between 1987 and 1994. Investigations by international and Israeli human rights organizations have found that, in the words of a 1997 report by B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, "it is very rare indeed that the GSS interrogates Palestinians without using at least some of the ["moderate physical pressures"] methods…." The report went on to cite a 1995 remark of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who said that violent shaking had been used against 8,000 detainees.  
 
In June 1994, a Human Rights Watch investigation into Israel's use of torture during interrogation of Palestinians confirmed that the GSS, with ten interrogation centers, was the agency primarily responsible for interrogation of security suspects. "In general the GSS decides who does the interrogation," an official in the IDF Judge Advocate General's office told us. We concluded that the GSS used beatings less than the IDF during interrogations, and relied more on position abuse and sensory deprivation. "Within one or two days of their arrest, persons taken to GSS interrogation wings are placed in a universe of discomfort, pain, humiliation and threats," the report stated. We noted that "[a]t all stages of GSS interrogations, the methods of torture and ill-treatment tend to follow a well-defined set of steps and guidelines. Interrogation methods are selected to inflict extreme physical pain and mental anguish without causing lasting or traceable physical injury." Our investigation also found that torture and abuse were more the rule than the exception, and that tens of thousands of Palestinians had suffered abuse at the hands of GSS and the IDF. Many of those in the sample we interviewed had eventually been released without charges ever having been brought against them, a finding confirmed by other international and Israeli human rights organizations and one suggesting that the "ticking bomb" or "necessity" argument accounted for very few of the cases where torture and ill-treatment were employed.  
 
These practices were ongoing and a matter of high public controversy during the period when Mr. Gillon occupied high-level positions in the GSS.  
 
· B'Tselem documented nine cases of torture and ill-treatment in the May-August period of 1994, at a time when Mr. Gillon was chief of the GSS's Headquarters Branch.  
 
· In April 1995, Abd al-Samad Harizat died in Jerusalem's Russian Compound (Moskobiyya) detention center after having been subjected by GSS agents to violent shaking, a practice sanctioned by the Landau Commission. According to an autopsy report by Israeli forensic pathologists, the specifics of his injuries "fit with brain damage due to rotational acceleration of the head without direct injury and/or indirect injury to the head." At this time Mr. Gillon was the head of the GSS.  
 
· In January 1996, at the request of the government, the High Court of Justice annulled an interim injunction it had earlier issued against further use of "moderate physical pressures" against Abd al-Halim Bilbeisi. The government acknowledged or refrained from denying that these methods included: shackling in painful positions; hooding; incessant blaring music; sleep deprivation; enforced squatting; and violent shaking.  
 
This record makes Mr. Gillon's appointment as an ambassador of the government most inappropriate. Given his prominent role in an agency that regularly used and promoted the use of measures authoritatively understood to constitute torture or ill-treatment under international human rights and humanitarian law, we strongly urge your government to withdraw his name from consideration from this or any other ambassadorial post. Mr. Gillon's record with the GSS warrants a serious impartial inquiry into the use of torture and ill-treatment by the agency during the period in which he served in responsible command and oversight positions, and an investigation into his role in ordering, sanctioning, or taking part in such abuses.  
 
Sincerely,  
 
Lotte Leicht Hanny Megally  
Brussels Director Executive Director  
Human Rights Watch Middle East & North Africa Division