Torture, Anyone?

By Nabeel Abraham
Lies of Our Times
May 1992
pp. 2 – 4


On February 4, 1992, Mustafa Akawi, a 35-year-old Palestinian, died while being detained in a prison on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Akawi's death touched off demonstrations by Palestinians and calls by human rights groups for an investigation.

The first that readers of the New York Times learned about these events was in a photo caption that appeared on February 7. The photo depicted two outstretched arms collaring a Palestinian demonstrator. The caption noted that the Israeli police had announced an investigation into "the death of a Palestinian prisoner in the West Bank" ("Arabs Protest Killing of West Bank Prisoner," p. A11). An astute reader might conclude that Akawi had died as a result of torture, but the Times, keeping to past practice, avoided the suggestion.

On February 11, the Times ran a brief follow-up story (Reuters, "U.S. Urges Inquiry in Death of Palestinian," p. A13). The wire service story was occasioned by the U.S. State Department's expression of concern in the matter. In paragraph two, readers learned that Akawi's "family has accused Israel's secret police of torturing him to death" and that an Israeli police investigation is under way.

Any suspicions that Akawi had died because of torture were smothered by the medical evidence presented in the closing paragraph of the five-paragraph story. The two pathologists who performed the autopsy concluded that Akawi "had suffered from arteriosclerosis that had narrowed his coronary arteries as much as 90 percent. 'He died of heart failure because of the disease,' [their report] said."

Only an Illusion

But the appearance of an open-and-shut case was illusory. In reality, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations had called for an independent investigation into the circumstances behind Akawi's death. Nineteen members of the Israeli Knesset also weighed in with a similar demand. Readers would get only an inkling of all this in the next day's issue, when the paper ran a second Reuters story, presenting some details about Akawi's incarceration for the first time ("Israeli Replies to Charge on Arab Who Died in Jail," February 12, p. A13).

That was triggered by "a rare appearance" by the head of the Israeli secret police (the General Security Service, or Shin Bet) before a parliamentary committee "to tell his side of the story." The meeting was closed to the public, but reporters were briefed by a parliamentary official. The Reuters story raised the possibility that Akawi had been tortured, but immediately discounted it by pointing to the autopsy report, which "found that Mr. Akawi had died of a chronic heart problem rather than torture." Then, inadvertently casting doubt on its own conclusion, the wire service added: "But the pathologist said the freezing cold in Mr. Akawi's cell and the physical and emotional pressure had triggered his death."

The next day, the Times ran a third and final piece on the matter – an unsigned story titled "Israeli Interrogators Cleared in Arab's Death" (February 14, 1992, p. A9). The title was misleading. True, the Shin Bet interrogators were cleared in Akawi's death – but by an internal police investigation, an unsurprising development given past practice, and something on which the Times reserved comment.

The real import of the story is found in the passages referring to the observations made in a New York press conference by Dr. Michael Baden, the American pathologist who took part in the autopsy. Baden was joined at the press conference by Dr. Robert Kirschner, Chicago's chief medical examiner and board member of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), the group that sponsored Baden's trip to Israel.

According to the story, Baden told the reporters that Akawi's heart attack had been "induced" by the conditions of his incarceration. The pathologist "said the prisoner had been forced to stand handcuffed with a hood over his head in bitter cold, and had not received adequate medical care when he complained of chest pains." This finding contradicts Shin Bet's earlier claim, repeated in this story, that Akawi had been given proper medical attention.

Damning Observations

More damning was Kirschner's observation, quoted verbatim, that "if we had a similar case in this country, this kind of death would be classed as homicide." Although Kirschner's statement provided some perspective, readers had no way of knowing that PHR and other human rights organizations had drawn a more damaging conclusion.

"Mr. Akawi's death has been widely reported as due to a heart attack," Dr. Jack Geiger, president of PHR, observed at the start of the New York press conference. "That is technically accurate, and grossly incomplete." He continued:

There is a distinction that needs to be understood between cause of death and the manner of death. If somebody was found on autopsy to have lungs filled with water, he may be technically and accurately be described as having drowned. If that same person is wearing concrete shoes, [is] tied in a burlap bag, and has handcuffs around his wrists, that speaks to the manner of death and makes it clear that to say "drowning" is an insufficient description… [Transcript of the press conference.]

Geiger was equally emphatic regarding the treatment Akawi received during detention: It "fully meets the international standards for the definition of torture."

Readers had no way of knowing what had transpired at the New York press conference unless they obtained a copy of the 17-page transcript from PHR. Reuters and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sent stories about the conference over the wires, but these accounts never made it into the United States' premier paper. Instead, the Times limited coverage of the February 12 press conference, which took place virtually down the street from its offices, to the aforementioned February 14 story datelined Jerusalem. This was in keeping with the paper's long-established practice of playing down the question of "torture" in stories about Israel or avoiding the word altogether.

The Dreaded "T" Word

In May 1987 a major scandal erupted in Israel over the frame-up of Izat Nafsu, a lieutenant in the Israeli army. His "forced confession" was extracted during interrogation by Shin Bet. Thomas Friedman, then Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times, reported the Israeli court's finding that Nafsu's "interrogators in Shin Bet came close to torturing him into confessions of treason and espionage" ("Court Finds Israel Framed a Moslem," May 26, 1987, p. 1; emphasis added).

Several days later the Times ran a related story that eschewed any mention of the "T" word. The unsigned story claimed "Shin Bet agents had used physical and psychological harassment to force him to confess" ("Shamir Asks inquiry in Security Case," June 2, 1987, p. A3).

The pattern is consistent over time. Two years later, Times reporter Alan Cowell reported that Palestinian journalist Hassan Abed Rabbo "made a confession to the police under intense interrogation" ("Seven Palestinians: Journalists or Revolutionaries," June 18, 1989, p. A10; emphasis added). Later that year, an unsigned story from Jerusalem stated that Khalid al-Sheik Ali, a 27-year-old Palestinian, had died of "numerous blows to the abdomen during interrogation" ("Death in Gaza Laid to Beating," December 26, 1989, p. A5; emphasis added).

Avoidance of the word "torture" extends to the paper's leading liberal, Anthony Lewis. In late 1989, Lewis wrote two columns about the arrest and treatment of Palestinian human rights worker Shawan Jabarin (" 'You are a Dog,'" October 22, p. E23; "Self-Inflicted Wound," November 19, 1989, p. E23). Jabarin had impeccable bona fides that included a nomination for the 1989 Reebok Human Rights Award as well as backing from Jimmy Carter, so there was little risk in taking up his case. Lewis described Jabarin's ordeal using the classic imagery of torture – describing how, while he was handcuffed and blindfolded, "soldiers burned him with a cigarette, punched him and jumped on him until he bled" – without once in the space of two columns deploying the dreaded "T" word. Instead, Lewis lapsed into his usual cant that the "beating" of this nice Palestinian "shows how Israel wounds itself" and corrupts its "moral standards" (" 'You Are a Dog,' " October 22, p. E 23).

Turning Over a New Leaf?

In its 1991 report on the torture of Palestinian prisoners, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem observed that simply to use the word torture at all is to make a statement. "But to deliberately avoid using the term," it added, "is also to make a statement" (The Interrogation of Palestinians During the Intifada, March 1991, Jerusalem, p. 9).

Recently, the Times broke its long-standing taboo and used the term repeatedly in a story about Israel. Writing under the headline, "Israeli Study Finds Torture Common," Clyde Haberman reported B'Tselem's recent finding that "torture by Israeli security forces has become so routine that Palestinian prisoners often no longer bother to complain about it" (April 3, p. A8).

It is too early to say whether this portends a sea change or is merely a transient phenomenon. One thing is certain, however. The Times is only the latest in a long line of western institutions, including such worthies as Amnesty International and Middle East Watch, that until recently avoided the word "torture" in discussing Palestinian complaints of torture until an Israeli human rights group came along to voice them.


Earlier Handling of Israeli Torture

Back in June 1977, the Sunday Times of London published an extensive report on Israeli torture in the occupied territories based on a detailed inquiry by an Insight team. The report concluded: "Torture of Arab prisoners is so widespread and systematic that it cannot be dismissed as 'rogue' cops exceeding orders. It appears to be sanctioned as deliberate policy" ("Israel and Torture: An Insight Inquiry," June 19, 1977).

The New York Times not only failed to reprint that story, which was offered to it, it never had a news article in which the evidence presented by the Insight team was put front and center. The first New York Times mention of the charges (Roy Reed, "Israelis Deny a London Paper's Charges of Torture," July 2, 1977, p. 3), with greater space given the reply than the charges. Extensive quotations of Israeli denials were given, but there was not a single quotation from the long report on torture, the evidence from which was summarized very tersely and only in paraphrase.

— Edward S. Herman