Israeli political leaders called Monday for a thorough inquiry into the investigative procedures of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, following disclosures that its agents falsified evidence and used illegal means to force an Israeli army officer to confess to crimes he did not commit.
The Israeli Supreme Court, in a landmark decision late Sunday, overturned the conviction of a Muslim army lieutenant who was sent to prison more than seven years ago on charges of espionage and treason.
The court found that the case against the lieutenant, Izat Nafsu, a member of Israel’s minority Circassian community, had been largely fabricated by Shin Bet agents who perjured themselves in court and destroyed evidence that might have helped Nafsu defend himself at his trial before a military tribunal in 1981.
According to legal sources and other officials familiar with the closed-door proceedings, lawyers for the state admitted that Nafsu’s confession had been extracted under duress by Shin Bet interrogators, who deprived Nafsu of sleep for days on end, forced him to take scalding hot and freezing cold showers and made him stand without clothing in icy weather.
The state denied Nafsu’s claim that he had been beaten but did admit, according to trial accounts, that his interrogators threatened to arrest his mother and his wife and force them to strip naked in public.
Although illegal, these kinds of interrogation methods are generally believed to be practiced routinely by the Shin Bet when dealing with suspected Arab terrorists. But the admission in court that the Shin Bet employs such practices, coupled with the fact that the victim in this case was an Israeli officer who spent more than seven years of his life in prison, has shocked the nation and led to calls for greater control over the security agency.
President Chaim Herzog said he was proud of Israel’s judiciary for righting a wrong but “ashamed” that such a thing could happen to “an innocent man” in Israel.
“The country must investigate and clarify the matter in the most thorough way possible to uproot procedures that are unacceptable and to come up with proper and efficient ways of supervising the work of the Shin Bet,” he said.
Yossi Sarid, a member of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, said: “It is mind-boggling that a citizen sat in prison for so long while innocent. We should be overjoyed at having such a court, but woe to us that we have such a Shin Bet.”
Moral indignation notwithstanding, political leaders appeared to be divided over the extent to which the Nafsu affair should be aired and whether the Shin Bet officials involved should be prosecuted.
The debate over the conflict between citizens’ rights and their security in a state that needs to maintain constant vigilance against terrorism is not a new one in Israel.
A former senior Shin Bet official implicated in the Nafsu affair figured in a similar scandal a year ago, when evidence came to light that Shin Bet interrogators had beaten to death two Palestinian prisoners and then fabricated evidence and lied in court to protect themselves.
Past Presidential Pardons
The official, Yossi Ginossar, resigned from Shin Bet after admitting he had falsified evidence in the earlier case. However, he and 10 other Shin Bet officials received presidential pardons that kept the case from going to court.
Nafsu, in an interview after his release, identified Ginossar as his main interrogator and demanded that he be put on trial. Nafsu said that Ginossar assaulted him, spat on him and stripped him naked.
The earlier affair was hushed up on grounds that court proceedings exposing the Shin Bet’s methods would compromise its ability to combat terrorism.
A number of legislators from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s right-wing Likud Bloc voiced the same argument this time.
“Without the Shin Bet, it would be impossible to live a normal life in Israel,” Likud member Chaim Kauffman told Israel radio.
Shamir, who recently agreed to establish a two-man commission to examine the methods of the Shin Bet, said the security service should not be turned into a target for public criticism when it is “waging a ceaseless war against terrorism.”
But other lawmakers and legal experts, expressing the widely held belief that the commission appointed by Shamir was not meant to conduct an inquiry but to divert one, said the latest scandal must have a more thorough airing. They also said the Shin Bet officials involved must be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, Izat Nafsu went home to his village of Kfar Kama in the northern Galilee, where the entire population of 2,000 turned out to greet him.
The villagers said they would help Nafsu finish the house he started building for his bride shortly before his arrest on suspicion of selling secrets to Syria while serving with the Israeli army in southern Lebanon in the late 1970s.
Sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment, Nafsu divorced his wife after his conviction to free her from the burden of being married to a man with whom she could not live.
“How do you begin putting the pieces of your life back together after something like this?” a friend of Nafsu asked.
At home for the first time in more than seven years, Nafsu began picking up the pieces by saying he bore no grudge against the Israeli military and was grateful that his “faith in Israeli justice” had been upheld. Then he put his arms around his mother and wept.