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Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK

World: Middle East

Israel 'torture' hearing opens

A demonstration of one torture method described by detainees

A landmark hearing has opened in Israel to decide the legality of interrogation methods used on Palestinian detainees which human rights groups say amount to torture.

Lawyers say prisoners are subjected to:

  • violent shaking which can lead to unconsciousness
  • hanging by their wrists
  • sleep deprivation
  • exposure to extreme temperatures
  • deafening music

Human rights groups have submitted a petition calling for an end to such practices. They say if the High Court rejects their petition, Israel will be the first democratic country to legalise torture.

They estimate around 85% of all Palestinians detained in Israel in a given year are tortured by the government's Shin Bet security agents.

[ image: Israel says it is only trying to stop terrorism]
Israel says it is only trying to stop terrorism
Lawyers who defend Palestinian detainees say prisoners are also routinely threatened with death and have threats made against their families.

But the Israeli Government says Shin Bet only employs "moderate physical pressure" to extract information from suspects believed to have direct knowledge of imminent bomb attacks.

The state's attorney has argued that "the national interest must prevail over human rights" in the fight against terrorism.

But the United Nations Committee Against Torture decided in 1998 that the interrogation practices amounted to torture.

International ramifications

According to one human rights group, Betselem, at least 850 Palestinians are tortured each year by Shin Bet agents. A second group, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, puts the number at more than 1,000.

The petition is being considered by a nine-judge panel headed by Chief Justice Aharon Barak.

The High Court has heard numerous petitions aimed at stopping the alleged torture of individual detainees, but this hearing is the first on the overall legality of the Shin Bet interrogation practices.

Eitan Felner, head of Betselem, said if the court rejects their petition, it could set a dangerous precedent worldwide.

''It will mean that Israel is the first democratic country to legalise torture and this could create a precedent that could even undermine the international consensus on the absolute prohibition of the use of torture,'' he added.

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Internet Links

Israeli Prime Minister's Office

B'Tselem human rights group

UN Committee Against Torture

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