June 26 is the International Day Against Torture. The Israeli organization Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, PCATI, is using this to highlight the Israeli security forces acts of torture and abuse against prisoners.
- Women prisoners are not subjected to the same physical violence as men. The violations against women are more subtle. But it does not mean that they are not serious. It could be soldiers or interrogators getting too close, making suggestions, touching them. One interrogator began to sing a famous Egyptian song to a female prisoner, about a bride who will lose her virginity the following night. At the time the prisoner was handcuffed and her feet were tied. We need to look at how gender determines the forms of torture. How do you classify a song? says Connie M Varela Pedersen from PCATI.
- I was really scared. Afraid that I would never get out again, afraid of the insulation and of my dad’s reaction, says Nisreen Abu Zaineh.
She was arrested by the Israeli security forces seven years ago, when she was 17 years old and spent three weeks in custody, isolated, without any access to information or representation. During the interrogations she was subjected to sexual harassment and other types of abuse.
Tied up and interrogated at 16
Nisreen Abu Zaineh is one of the 1 027, mainly Palestinian, prisoners, who were part of the prisoner exchange when Hamas released the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in October last year. She sits slumped on a sofa in the office of the organization Palestinian Working Women Society for Development, PWWSD. The organization is based in Tulkarem in the West Bank.
Beside Nisreen Abu Zaineh sits Tahani Nassar who was also imprisoned. Both participate in meetings on the situation of female prisoners that PWWSD organize.
- We were on our way from Jenin when they suddenly started to fire at our car. The driver died and my brothers were wounded. Soldiers dragged me out of the car and the others were taken away by ambulance. The soldiers found bullets in my pocket, but I have no idea how they got there, says Tahani.
After she had gotten arrested she was questioned by the Israeli secret service, GSS. She was 16 at the time. For hours she was forced to sit with her hands and feet tied up. The interrogator showed her photos of her brothers and told her that they were dead. He smeared her family and told her that she was all alone.
Tactics to get people to break down
Nisreen Abu Zaineh’s and Tahani Nassar’s stories are not unique, says Connie M Varela Pedersen. PCATI is criticizing the Israeli security forces for use of torture and abuse against persons believed to threaten the Israeli state. According to Connie M Varela Pedersen, interrogations can take 20 hours and the suspects are usually tied to the hands and feet during this time.
- It’s a very tough situation and the prisoners are completely isolated. The investigators tells them that they will never get out again. They threaten their families. In different ways they try to get the prisoners to lose their sense of time – the light may be on around the clock, or the prisoners are locked up underground. Forensic experts states that if a person is forced to stay awake for more than 72 hours he or she begins to lose control. These tactics are used tof get people to break down, not to attain useful information, says Connie M Varela Pedersen.
Women interrogated about male relatives
In the Shalit agreement all female Palestinian political prisoners were released. A new trend that PCATI has noticed in recent weeks is that women are being arrested, put in detention for a week and then being released. During their time in lock-up, many of them are pressed for information on their male relatives.
- Prison was like being in hell. We were beaten and the guards poured hot water over us. During menstruation, we only got a few sanitary towels that were supposed to last the entire period, says Nisreen Abu Zaineh.
- But at the same time it set my thoughts free. I was mentally independent. I read books and when I walked through the room, it was like going through all of Palestine. I was able to study other thoughts and opinions than those of my family.
Helps with legal support and complaints
PCATI offers legal support to Nisreen Abu Zaineh and other prisoners who have been freed. They also help them file complaints against the Israeli authorities for the abuse and torture they have been subjected to. Although many are afraid of reprisals, several have agreed to report what has happened to them. Of course one big problem is that it’s the security forces themselves who are investigating the allegations, and so far none of the prisoners have been given redress. It may seem like a hopeless fight.
- But it is important to utilize the systems in place to obtain redress. And to never give up. The official complaints help to highlight the shortcomings of the system and challenge it, says Connie M Varela Pedersen’s colleague Louis Frankenthaler and shows an article about how Nelson Mandela worked in a similar way to change the justice system in South Africa.
Harsh attitudes towards human rights organizations
At the same time the attitudes towards human rights organizations in Israel are getting increasingly harsh. Connie M Varela Pedersen and her colleagues refer to a number of laws which have been proposed in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament – laws that in various ways would hamper the work of human rights organizations.
- There is much anger and hatred against us. We are seen as enemies, as state traitors. And as long as we do not get the public opinion behind us, it is difficult for us to bring about any real change, says Connie M Varela Pedersen.
That’s also why PCATI is turning to the international community for help to increase the pressure on Israel from the outside.
- We could really need the international community to support us as human rights organizations. When the Israeli authorities are trying to discredit us and undermine our credibility, the international community could legitimize us, she says.