Israel To Relax Torture Law?

Right-wing lawmakers said Tuesday they would introduce legislation to soften a landmark Supreme Court ruling that bars the use of physical force in interrogations by the Shin Bet security service.

Critics of the court's decision have said the restrictions make it difficult for the security service to prevent attacks by Palestinian militants in Israel.

Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, however, has instructed interrogators to obey the court ruling, Israeli media said today.

The Supreme Court on Monday imposed a ban on the use of physical force by Shin Bet interrogators. Shin Bet methods, described by human rights activists as torture, include violent shaking, handcuffing suspects in painful positions, placing filthy sacks over their heads, depriving them of sleep and blasting them with loud music.

Human rights groups have said thousands of Palestinian detainees were routinely subjected to such violent interrogations, and that in most cases there was no direct suspicion they were plotting attacks.

The court said such practices violate the basic law on the dignity and freedom of the individual. The ruling, reversing decades of policy, highlighted Israel's difficulties in combating terrorism without sacrificing democratic values. Human rights activists praised it as a watershed decision.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson told Israel radio today that the court "performed a service for the whole region" and that she hoped the ruling would also serve as an example to the Palestinian Authority.

However, critics said the court is endangering innocents, and they advocated new legislation that would soften the ruling. Reuven Rivlin, a leading legislator of the Likud Party, the main opposition group, said the law "was intended to protect the victims, not the murderers."

The critics cited the "ticking bomb situation" in which the Shin Bet suspects that a terror attack is about to take place, but does not know where, and has to find out in order to prevent loss of life.

The Supreme Court noted that the state still has the right to defend itself. If the Shin Bet believes it must torture a suspect to reveal the location of a "ticking bomb," the torturer would be put on trial, but a court might accept the argument that physical force was necessary.

Rivlin said Shin Bet interrogators should not be put in such a position. He said he would introduce legislation giving either the attorney general or another legal body the right to authorize the use of force ahead of time.

Rivlin said he would introduce the bill Wednesday when parliament holds a special session to debate the new West Bank land-for-security agreement.

It was not clear whether such a bill would be passed. The center-left government has a solid majority in the 120-member parliament. However, some of its more hawkish members might vote with the opposition.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh criticized the ruling, saying it ill hamper the Shin Bet's operations. "The moment the suspect knows he is backed by such a weighty ruling he can very easily hide behind this legal screen," Sneh said.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin supported the ruling, but Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein implied he supports legislation to give the Shin Bet more powers than the police, at least in emergencies.

"The legislator has to look the public in the eyes and say either, `I think that what exists is enough,' or perhaps in certain conditions extraordinary methods are needed," Rubinstein said.

Beilin said the previous situation was a blot on Israel's reputation and the Supreme Court ruling has strengthened the country's democracy.

He said he opposed legislation to bypass the ruling. "I don't think there is any need for it," he said. "The Shin Bet is doing holy work in protecting lives. It will be able to continue doing this without using these methods."

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