Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz

The stonecutter's son

June 21, 2001

Palestinian human rights activist Abed al-Ahmar was arrested about a month ago for being in Israel without a permit. He was sent to the Shin Bet for interrogation on suspicion of working for the Popular Front. He recently petitioned the High Court over the conditions of his interrogation, but the judges rejected it.

Abed al-Ahmar at the Supreme Court last week. "I waited three years for you to come and apologize for what you did and now look what you're doing to me again."(Photo: Miki Kratsman)

Three years ago, Ahmar was released after spending two and a half years in administrative detention when the Shin Bet was unable to put him on trial. At the time, he related the story of the torture he'd endured in dry detail: "Take the sport position, for example," he said. "One interrogator pulls backward, one pulls forward, pushing on the handcuffs with his foot, and it hurts. They call it 'stomach exercise.' They tie your legs to the chair and pull your shoulders back. For how long? It depends on the person's condition. As soon as the person starts to throw up - some also faint - they sometimes stop and continue with another position - With me, they kept going even though I threw up. The only thing they said to me was: 'Why are you messing up the floor?' Sometimes they start to laugh and say: 'We want to exercise another part of your body now.'".The Supreme Court has since made torture illegal. After his release, Ahmar went to work for human rights organizations. At first, he worked with the Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem; now he works for Bassam Eid's Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

We have seen each other fairly often in the last couple of years. Ahmar was my guide through the alleyways of Deheisheh, his refugee camp. Once, he took me to meet some of the camp's poorest residents. Another time, he guided me to meet hardened Tanzim fighters. One day, he took me to meet a child of refugees whose hand has been broken by soldiers for no particular reason. He took me to see the shelled houses of Beit Jala and to meet some of the stone-throwers. On more than one occasion, he escorted me to the homes of victims of the violence. Wherever we went, he seemed to be held in great esteem. 

This stonecutter's son, who has spent eight years of his life in Israeli prisons, learned Hebrew at age 15 from a deranged character who used to wander among the houses in Ramat Eshkol that he and his father were building, and started a "Hebrew neighborhood" - a group of tents in which only Hebrew was spoken and they didn't smoke on Saturdays - in prison. Now he is again being accused of military activity in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. 

His appearance reflects his physical and mental suffering. He walks bent over due to back pains he says originated in the interrogation rooms; he is gaunt and pale because of frequent vomiting, which he also attributes to the torture. His big dream is to find himself a hospital, either in Israel or abroad, that would cure his back pains and his recurrent vomiting. After I interviewed him on television several months ago, the manager of a major Israeli medical center agreed to have his institution provide free treatment - on one condition: that he obtain an entry permit for Israel. But Ahmar was unable to obtain a permit, either to enter Israel or to go to Jordan, and was bitterly disappointed.

About a month ago, on May 24, he was stopped at random in Jerusalem by a police officer who then discovered that Ahmar was going around without a permit to enter Israel. Like many other Palestinians who can no longer tolerate the closure, Ahmar used to come into Jerusalem occasionally without a permit, which in any case he never had any chance of receiving. In Jerusalem, he always carried a fancy leather briefcase with him. I once asked him what was in it and he explained that it protected him from the soldiers and policemen: They were always so busy rifling through the briefcase, where he mainly kept copies of B'Tselem reports, that they would forget to ask for his entry permit. After seven days in Etzion Prison, he was passed on to the Shin Bet. From there, he was brought to the interrogation facility at the Russian Compound, where he has remained. He says they spend very little time interrogating him. Mostly, he sits for hours in the corner of the interrogation room, handcuffed to a stool, answering questions that the interrogators direct at him from time to time. He told his attorney that, once a day, he is given a 15-minute break to eat and go to the bathroom. That's all. That's how it is from nine in the morning until six in the evening. 

There are no beatings or shakings. The interrogator just sits across from the handcuffed suspect and types into his computer. Three years ago, Ahmar explained the set-up: "The interrogation rooms are their offices. There's a telephone and computer. Sometimes the telephone rings and they leave us bound - sometimes in the middle of the shaking - and talk to their family. They're so nervous when they speak to their families. As soon as they want to relax, they tie us up in the shoulder position, put their feet on our shoulders and play a little on the computer."

Ahmar told his lawyer that most of the questions he has been asked this time had to do with his political views. He tells the interrogators that he supports a solution in which there is one secular and democratic state. But you're not supposed to sit in jail for this. He says he suggested to his interrogators that they leave the Shin Bet and go to work for human rights. "It's more respectable," he offered. His lawyer says that he also told them: "I waited three years for you to come and knock on my door to apologize for what you did to me. I waited and waited and you didn't come. And now look what you're doing to me again."

Last week, I saw him at the Supreme Court. It wasn't the Abed I knew and not just because of the beginnings of a beard sprouting on his cheeks, or his unkempt hair. Ahmar, who had always looked thin and somewhat sickly, now looked especially bad: His complexion was grayish-yellow, his body withered, and the indentations made by the handcuffs were still visible on his wrists. From time to time, when he recognized someone in the courtroom, he managed to muster a slight smile. Most of the time, he stared out into space. When he finished vomiting, the hearing resumed.

Eliyahu Mazza, the presiding Justice, repeatedly mispronounced the name of the petitioner's attorney, Allegra Pacheco. No one corrected him. She apparently angered him rather frequently because he frequently rebuked her, even pounding on the table and raising his voice once. A good while after Ahmar had been brought back inside after vomiting his guts out, and placed back on the defendants' bench between two police officers, Mazza asked: "Is the petitioner in the room?" At another point, his colleague, Justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen, remarked: "He was a free man and he could have gone to any doctor or hospital." Perhaps the distinguished jurist has not heard of the closure and the hardships it imposes on the Palestinians, including the obstruction of access to medical treatment. When Pacheco tried to explain this to the Justice, Strasberg-Cohen replied: "There are plenty of good doctors in the West Bank." Justice Edmund Levy, who was officially given a permanent appointment to the Supreme Court the following day, was quiet most of the time. Pacheco told the court that her client's medical condition was deteriorating and that the dampness of his cell, combined with the poor food and thin blankets he is given, were only worsening the situation. Her colleague, attorney Yossi Schwartz, asserted that Ahmar was being prevented from receiving the medications he needs. 

Justice Levy, in a rare comment said: "I'm presuming that he is truly ill. The simplest way is to do a gastro examination [in which a small tube is inserted into the patient's intestine - G. L.]. It's not a big deal. That's the best way. Convince him to do it." It turns out that, in the course of his interrogation, Ahmar was taken to a Jerusalem hospital for the procedure, but when he found out that it was to be performed without anesthesia, he refused to have it done. Attorney Anar Helman, representing the state: "No one wants anything to happen to him, heaven forbid." Justice Mazza: "We're done with the health issue. Would madam care to move on to the next topic?"

The Shin Bet people sat in the front row - one attorney and a senior and junior interrogating officer. The lawyer wore a tie; the senior officer wore a striped jacket and the junior officer had on a polo shirt. All three wore diving watches and had beepers attached to their belts. Former administrative detainee Imad Sava once described how fastidious the Shin Bet personnel are when it comes to their watches and their shoes. Today, the junior officer was wearing moccasins.

When Pacheco complained about their interrogation methods, they smiled. Pacheco: "It's hard for me to stand before you and talk about the matter of the chair and handcuffs. We're glad that the Supreme Court outlawed the use of the chair and handcuffs for torture and we ask that we not go backwards. What's happening here reminds me of what Gideon Ezra said after the Supreme Court ruling against torture was handed down: He said, 'We'll find another chair.'"

Justice Mazza: "In the Shin Bet deposition, it says it was a regular chair." Pacheco: "It's a slanted chair whose front legs are lower. It's a chair to be used in interrogation, to cause discomfort and suffering. He felt it in his stomach and back as soon as he sat down on the chair. He told them the chair was illegal. The interrogators do not sit on a chair like this. And the handcuffs were also very painful. If the honorable court rejects this petition today, it will be giving a green light to the Shin Bet to lower the chair even more. There's a history of the Shin Bet that says this chair is not an interrogation tool, but we've seen that this is not the case. It's impossible to rely on what the Shin Bet says.

"As for the handcuffs - I saw the marks on the petitioner's wrists. I want the Justices to see this. Yesterday, the indentations were even deeper into the skin. I showed it to the police officer and he said, 'It's not us, it's the interrogators.' The police officer spoke with Dekel [one of the interrogators] and Dekel told him to tell me that, if there's a problem, I should file a petition with the High Court. The atmosphere within the Shin Bet facility is that they feel they can do whatever they want. The petitioner is a well known and respected person, notwithstanding the baseless charges. He is a field worker for human rights. He worked for B'Tselem and volunteered for the Committee Against Torture. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience."

Ahmar sat there silently throughout his attorney's speech. Pacheco asked that the Justices take a look at his forearms. Mazza responded angrily, saying that they would do so at their choosing. A heated exchange about whether the judges should observe the prisoner's hands ensued. Pacheco was riled. An American by birth, her Hebrew is not perfect. The state's representative: "There is a deposition from the interrogators that refutes all of this."

Mazza proposed that the court "interview" the interrogators about the chair and the handcuffs, if the petitioner's representative agreed. Pacheco again asked that Mazza look at Ahmar's hands. Mazza lost his patience: "If we decide to look, we'll look. You will not impose conditions."

Pacheco tried again: "I ask that the court look at his wrists."

Mazza finally relented: "Let him show us. Where is he? He should come a little closer. What does he have on his hands? Are you ready to bring him and show us what he has on his hands?"

Pacheco: "You can't see standing here."

Mazza: "Maybe we could get a physician's opinion. Would you agree to have the prison doctor examine him? - If you don't trust anyone, why turn to the court?"

After "interviewing" the Shin Bet personnel behind closed doors - without the petitioner's attorney being present, Justice Mazza said: "We interviewed the interrogator and also the head of the unit. We asked them to demonstrate all kinds of things and they did all that we asked."

Helman, the representative of the state: "I'm not a doctor. There are doctors who are treating this man. If the petitioner will cooperate, he will hopefully get better. There is no intent to cause him medical suffering, heaven forbid. As for the handcuffs, there is a deposition that says such things are not done. I didn't get the impression that these were strong indentations. Maybe it's from friction. The interrogators see to it that the handcuffs are not tight and do not violate the decision of this court. His hands are loosely cuffed from behind with a chain between the cuffs. There is no evidentiary basis for issuing an injunction and we request that the petition be summarily rejected."

Mazza, in the court decision: "The petitioner presented both his arms. We did not see marks on the hands. It appears that the prison doctors are doing as much as they can, given the restrictions involved. We interviewed the interrogators behind closed doors and received explanations about the type of chair used. The handcuffs were also shown to us. An interrogator demonstrated on his colleague. On the basis of all this, we have reached the conclusion that the petitioners have not laid a basis for their claims. Therefore, we reject the petition."

Abed al-Ahmar walked limply out of the room, pushed along by two policemen. At the end of the week, he was taken to the hospital again for tests. He told his lawyer that the police officers who escorted him told the doctors: "This is a dangerous terrorist." On Monday, the military judge extended his detention by another 15 days.



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