Following HCJ pressure in HaMoked’s petition: Israeli authorities will partially reopen a 2018 complaint of police brutality towards a Palestinian juvenile detainee
At 3:00 am on November 18, 2018, 17-year-old Amir Abu Sbeih, a Palestinian youth from East Jerusalem, was dragged from his bed and taken for interrogation by the Israel police. At the Russian Compound detention center, Abu Sbeih suffered severe police brutality during the five-hour wait for the interrogation. Among other things, his head was bashed against the wall and on the floor and later, he was repeatedly kicked while he lay on the floor – all the while he remained blindfolded and cuffed hand and feet. The two men who conducted his interrogation failed to act on his complaint, despite his injured face and the fact that he told them about the beatings. They did not even bother to provide him with medical treatment. He was released later that afternoon, without any charges.
On December 2, 2018, HaMoked submitted a complaint on his behalf to the Police Investigation Unit
(PIU). Photos of his injuries and hospital medical documents regarding his condition the day after the event were attached to the complaint. Some six months later, on May 22, 2019, the PIU notified HaMoked about its decision not to open an investigation, giving a circular and inane explanation for it, whereby “the overall circumstances of the matter do not justify further criminal investigation, as this concerns an incident for which a criminal proceeding is not the suitable framework of examination”.
HaMoked reviewed the PIU investigation materials and found them insufficient and problematic, as they focused on the interrogation itself rather than the subject of the complaint – the brutal acts which preceded it. It was also evident that not the slightest effort had been made to discover the identity of the police officers who were with the minor at the station, and that only his affidavit had been taken. Moreover, it turned out that there was no video recording of the first 40 minutes of the minor’s interrogation on the day of the event. Therefore, on September 8, 2019, HaMoked filed an appeal to the Appeals Unit at the State Attorney’s Office over the decision not to open a criminal investigation in this case. A year later, on September 17, 2020, HaMoked was informed that the appeal had been rejected.
On November 1, 2020, HaMoked petitioned the High Court of Justice (HCJ) to reverse the State Attorney’s Office decision to reject the appeal. HaMoked also demanded clarifications regarding the authorities’ failure to conduct a proper and efficient examination of the minor’s complaint; and that a procedure be formulated for the examination of incidents of police violence against detainees, especially minors. HaMoked argued that the Police, PIU and the State Attorney’s Office acted in a flawed manner and without a sincere intention to examine the individual complaint and HaMoked’s claims about systemic failures arising from it. The authorities’ flawed conduct resulted in loss of evidence and seriously undermined the chances of conducting an effective investigation into this grave incident. HaMoked added that the decision was extremely unreasonable and as such warranted the HCJ’s exceptional intervention in the discretion of law-enforcement authorities. HaMoked added that failure to conduct a proper investigation in such a case undermined the absolute prohibition on abuse or torture during interrogation.
During the hearing of April 26, 2021, the justices, particularly Justice Hendel, directed pointed questions at the state’s representative. The justices asked, among other things, why shouldn’t the minors’ interrogators be questioned, as they were “supposed to know [what happened]”. The justices also wondered was it really impossible to check how many and which police officers were on duty at the time of the incident, as they too should be questioned. "You don't even know how many officers were there that night?" Justice Baron asked. Justice Hendel was critical of the state representative’s comment that it would be difficult to review the decision made in the appeal given the “time gap created from the time of the incident to this day”. Justice Hendel added that the absence of a video recording of the first part of the minor’s interrogation lent support to the suspicion of police brutality in this case. He further said “You are the investigating body. It is extremely sensitive when someone submits a complaint against a police officer. If there is a complaint, the expectation is that you will investigate [it]… Someone came [to complain] and it is a minor and he has signs [of violence]. I do not understand why investigating [this] is impossible.”
Following this questioning, the state representative requested a break to consult with the Deputy State Attorney, after which she informed the court that “we are willing to perform two investigation actions in the petitioner’s matter: one is to question the interrogator… additionally we will check how many police officers were present at that shift… and then we will consider how we can proceed”. Justice Hendel summarized the hearing by saying the state had 45 days to update the court about its conclusions, and added that everything was “still open and we have not ruled out other remedies… You should seek to investigate… [Following] such a discussion, thoughts should come to mind regarding future files. Things must be given consideration and this is also part of our role”. A decision to this effect was issued on May 12, 2021, ordering the state to submit an update by June 10, 2021.
It should be noted that this case is part of a widespread phenomenon of ill-treatment of Palestinians – adults and minors alike – during detention and interrogation – and of ineffective examination of complaints by PIU. The fact that complaints of gratuitous violence on the part of the security forces rarely lead to indictments against the perpetrators means the corruption of the system and impunity for the offenders.