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Friends of Israel concerned over ruling allowing confessions extracted under torture

Israel Supreme Court upholds murder confession after torture

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October 27, 2022

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09:47 PM

Friends of Israel concerned over ruling allowing confessions extracted under torture

Israel’s high court has upheld a murder conviction based solely on a confession obtained after 19 days of extreme mental and physical torture, all while refusing the 21-year-old’s requests to speak with a lawyer and to remain silent. 

Basic torture

From the moment Amiram Ben Uliel was surrounded by police on his morning walk to his studies and thrown into an unmarked van, he was kept in isolation, without his wife or parents allowed to know where he was being detained, and deprived of food and sleep. For 19 days he was subjected to non-stop interrogation, with multiple government agents screaming and spitting at him while constantly threatening, during beatings, to put him in the hospital and spill his blood. He later described one interrogator's behavior. 

ben Uliel

[He] grabbed me by the shirt and told me, 'I'm going to be your nightmare. We will drink your blood through your ears…'

Through it all, Ben Uliel explained consistently that he knew nothing of the arson murders about which he was questioned. Then, with just 48 hours left before the expiry of the 21-day-period during which suspects in Israel may be prevented from seeing a lawyer, an Israeli court approved a police request for “enhanced interrogation.” 

Enhanced torture

The court’s euphemistic phrase “enhanced interrogation” permitted government agents to step up the torture with the use of physical devices. Israel’s judiciary placed a gag order on Ben Uliel and his lawyer which prevented them from identifying most of the means of torture implemented against him at that point. It was revealed, though, that intelligence agents bound his feet to a chair and his hands behind his back while repeatedly bending him backwards, causing him extraordinary pain that would garner a false confession within seconds from almost anyone, as explained in the English translation below the video.

What does it take to cause anyone to admit to anything, and what is the 'recipe' for a predetermined confession? It's very simple and has only a few 'ingredients': 1. zip ties, 2. a chair, 3. patience. Take the defendant and seat him on the chair. Bind his feet to the chair and bind his hands behind his back. Bend him backwards so that he can't get up.

"If you encounter a particularly strong defendant who refuses to break down, repeat the procedure several times, and you will certainly receive the desired results. This recipe was successfully used in the Duma case and in other cases. It doesn't take much for someone to break under torture and say whatever the interrogator wants him to say.

The video concludes with a suggestion for the viewers: "Try the GSS challenge at home and see how long you hold out."

Stand out nation

On September 1, 2022, Israel’s Supreme Court not only approved the lower court decision allowing the enhanced torture with devices, but it allowed Ben Uliel’s confession to the arson, extracted after the torture, to stand, even as it invalidated a confession made by Ben Uliel during the torture. Ben Uliel did not know that his confession which got the torture to end would be discarded and so, when he was ordered to repeat the confession, during a supposed reenactment of the arson just 36 hours after the torture stopped, he complied, believing he had nothing to lose through a second confession and not wanting to restart the torture process. In fact, he was specifically threatened with a renewal of the torture at the beginning of the reenactment, making the passage of the 36 hours irrelevant, even if, in fact, it were the case, as the government claims, that the trauma of three weeks of extreme torture could resolve within a day and a half without therapy and while still in the hands of the torturers.

This left the State of Israel as one of the last nations in the world to officially condone torture. While complaints surface throughout the world of police stubbornly persisting in administering torture filled interrogations, it is almost always without official state sanction. To actually have the highest court in Israel provide a lengthy “reasoned” decision upholding the administration and consequences of outright torture puts Israel in a unique position, particularly as one of the 38 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organization that works to build policies for better lives and to reinforce democracy

American legal expert weighs in

Constitutional law expert Nathan Lewin, who has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and served as professor of law at Georgetown and Harvard Law Schools, examined the facts of this case and found the State of Israel to have failed the test of the “decency” of its judiciary.

Israel does not have a counterpart to the United States Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. Suspects may be interrogated in police custody, and they cannot claim a privilege against self-incrimination. But the principle that an accused’s confession, if coerced, is too unreliable to be accepted by a court as evidence of his guilt is a hallmark of a civilized society adopted by Israeli courts … 

I learned that the Duma-arson prosecutors admitted in court that some of [a second, teenaged suspect's] confessions while he was being interrogated by Shabak are not admissible because they were made under extreme torture…

the admissibility of the teenager’s apparently coerced confession tests the decency of the Israeli judiciary. [Emphases added].

Gaslighting on a state level 

Despite long-term policy allowing torture during interrogations, the State of Israel is actually one of 165 signatory nations to the UN Convention against Torture, the clauses of which prohibit 

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession … 

In fact, Israel obligated itself to abide by the following clause of that convention which would require not only freeing Ben Uliel but jailing his interrogators! 

Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law …

Reliable?

Even in the absence of torture, overly aggressive interrogations, including where police lie to suspects, sometimes claiming that a second suspect blamed them for a crime, lead to false confessions. A University of Michigan Law School project found hundreds of post-conviction exonerations following false murder confessions. Interrogational torture makes confessions far more unreliable.

Even enemy combatants may not be tortured in any way, according to the United States Army field manual, which expressly states,

Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. [P. 1-8].

The manual specifically prohibits the forms of torture used to extract Ben Uliel’s confession, including:

  • Infliction of pain through bondage
  • Forcing individuals to stand, sit or kneel in abnormal positions for prolonged periods of time
  • Food deprivation
  • Any form of beating
  • Mock executions
  • Abnormal sleep deprivation
  • Threatening or implying physical or mental torture
  • Threatening or implying that guaranteed rights will not be provided unless cooperation is forthcoming

The manual goes on to list 13 separate crimes for which interrogators will be imprisoned if they violate the rules against torture.

In addition to causing suspects to knowingly making a false confession, torture can actually cause suspects to falsely believe the allegations being repeated to them by damaging areas of the brain associated with memory.

Amiram Ben Uliel with his wife in court

Holes in confession

The State of Israel’s judiciary sentenced Ben Uliel to three life sentences, for deaths that resulted from arson, based solely on his confession. But, in addition to the lack of reliability of all forced confessions, this confession doesn’t match the evidence gathered in several significant ways:

  • Ben Uliel’s confession has him acting alone while eyewitnesses claimed to have seen two arsonists each throwing firebombs. Additionally, two different sets of graffiti, in two different handwritings, were seen at the arson scene;
  • An expert handwriting analysis found “a complete lack of similarity” between Ben Uliel’s handwriting and both sets of graffiti;
  • A shoe print analysis found that neither of the two different and very fresh shoe prints at the arson scene were not those of Ben Uliel;
  • Ben Uliel’s confession is contradicted by the timeline indicated by the evidence;
  • Ben Uliel’s confession is contradicted by a confession extracted from a different person which was extracted using similar torture techniques and then disregarded; and
  • Videotape of Ben Uliel’s alleged reenactment of the crime shows him to be “clearly unfamiliar with the scene.” The videotaping even had to be stopped multiple times to instruct him on how to reenact the arson when his statements didn't match the evidence.

Political persecution?

The small village in which the arson attack took place was the scene of a number of previous firebombings carried out by members of two different family clans, similar to mafia turf wars in the US. Nonetheless, government agents immediately announced that it was a nationalist crime, not a clan fight, and failed to investigate perpetrators of previous arsons (both shortly before and shortly after this arson) in the very same community, based solely on nationalist graffiti which could have been purposely placed in order to make the crime appear to be nationalistically motivated. 

While ignoring important leads in the investigation, even refusing to take witness testimony, the police specifically chose young freedom activists like Ben Uliel to interrogate for the allegedly nationalist crime. Ben Uliel had previously spoken against overzealous policing and over regulation of the lives of Israel's citizens. As a member of Israel's Sephardic Jewish community emanating from North Africa, and being religiously observant, Ben Uliel was also more distant from the power base of secular government leaders. 

Couldn't have known?

Prosecutors told the media that, during his reenactment, Ben Uliel stated facts that he could not have know if he was not the arsonist, like the fact that the bottle of the firebomb was green and the car next to the house was black. In essence, their entire case boiled down to, “you can't trust us not to lie to get permission to torture (they falsely claimed to the attorney general that they had evidence that a new murderous attack was about to take place, making Ben Uliel a so called ”ticking time bomb"), and you can't trust us not to torture a 21-year old, but you can trust us that we never mentioned the color of the bottle or the car during the torture." 

Media backs torture

Ben Uliel's attorney stressed to the Supreme Court that he never provided any new information at all in his confessions and reenactment, but Israel's legacy media reported the police claim, that the forced confession is reliable because of the Ben Uliel's description of the colors of the car and bottle, without mentioning that he claims to have been told that information by the police themselves.

Cruel and unusual prison conditions

Rather than treating Ben Uliel as someone who appears to be unjustly imprisoned, the Israel Prison Service has placed the most extreme limitations possible on Ben Uliel. His wife, Orian Ben Uliel, explained, after receiving notice that her husband was being moved to a prison farther from her home, that making weekly visits with their 5-year-old daughter would be more difficult,  

It is abuse for its own sake. During investigations, Amiram underwent difficult torture, and since then they don’t stop abusing him and us. Amiram is now in the most difficult conditions of the Prison Service - solitary confinement, no telephone, visits only behind a partition, closed up all day in a tiny cell, even for the couple of minutes that he sees daylight - it is through bars and screens.

That’s not enough for them - they just abuse him more and more. All in an attempt to break us, but we are strong. This whole case is a plot and a setup by the prosecutor's office, the Shabak and the Prison Service, which helps them break Amiram. My husband is innocent, and it will soon be proven. This is the State of Israel in 2020. Disgraceful.

The solitary confinement is so severe that Ben Uliel is prohibited from joining group prayers even on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, without any basis offered by the prison. In the US, on the other hand, even overcrowding and long sentences have been found to violate the constitution's “cruel and unusual punishment” clause. 

Why should Israel listen?

The State of Israel is the largest regular recipient of US taxpayer funded foreign aid, totaling $3.8 billion each year in grants in addition to making available a total of $9 billion in American loan guarantees. Additionally, several bills now under consideration in Congress would provide $1 billion in supplemental aid to the State of Israel, over the next three years. The United States often raises human rights issues with other nations when determining whether to offer free trade agreement as well as levels of foreign aid.

Does Israel need the money?

Not all Israeli politicians find US foreign aid helpful. Former Israel Deputy Knesset Speaker Moshe Feiglin, for example, was quoted saying the aid is actually harmful:

I’m totally against this [U.S. foreign] aid [to Israel]. It cannot be when, first of all, the Americans are standing in line like two or three miles in the snow to get a job. To get any kind of aid from America when, economically, we are in a much, much better position doesn’t look moral to me. But it’s much more than that. This aid is not in our favor, not economically, not militarily, not in any way.

Feiglin went on to say that the aid even takes away Israel’s right to make sovereign decisions that affect its security.

Amiram Ben Uliel's wife and daughter

Campaign

With Israeli's Supreme Court set to rule on Ben Uliel's request for a full (en banc) hearing of the entire court, his supporters have begun a campaign calling upon concerned US citizens to reach out to their representatives in both chambers of Congress to demand that Israel retroactively ban torture and free all defendants whose convictions were extracted during or after torture. They posted the below announcement of their campaign on a site hosting a separate petition supporting Ben Uliel’s release.

Call to Action

Israelis and Americans have organized a campaign to lobby Congress to request clarification from Israel about its policy on torture and to release Amiram Ben Uliel, whose murder confession was extracted under extreme torture, from prison. Organizers have urged citizens to contact their representatives (Find Your House and Senate Representatives) and to let Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Herzog (202-364-5500; consular@washington.mfa.gov.il) know that torture is always unacceptable and to demand its immediate ban. The organizers emphasize that similar efforts in the past have succeeded in getting Israel to reverse convictions. For more information, contact pidyon.shvuyim180@gmail.com or see Justice for Amiram Ben Uliel.

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