A panel of Israeli judges has blasted the country’s counterterrorism agency Shin Bet, accusing it of dubious interrogation practices and evidence-gathering that led to an innocent man spending two years behind bars.
Last month, 23-year-old Khalil Nimri, of East Jerusalem, was acquitted of plotting a bomb attack against a hotel in the southern resort city of Eilat, known to be frequented by Orthodox Jews. In 2015, a hotel clerk wrongly identified Nimri as a man who came in and started asking suspicious questions, before realizing his mistake and warning the police who then arrested another suspect, Ashraf Salameh.
But instead of letting Nimri go, his interrogators made him believe they would harm his family and coerced him into admitting he was part of the bomb plot. It is not uncommon for a suspect, put under pressure or tricked into thinking they will get off lightly, to confess to something they haven’t done.
On Monday, a panel of judges at the Be'er Sheva District Court issued a ruling, condemning Shin Bet’s methods.
"It is possible – and we do not know this – that the state's theory is backed by rich intelligence that indicates the defendant's guilt as well as Ashraf's—intelligence that has not been presented to us,” the judges wrote, as cited by Israeli media. “However, based on the partial evidence before us, it appears a horrible error has been made, with the investigative techniques leading to a false confession.”
The judges continued: “Shin Bet needs to take a good look at itself so that interrogation techniques, which do indeed sometimes uncover dangerous acts of terrorism, aren't also liable to induce innocent people to admit to acts that they did not commit… There is tangible concern that the defendant was arrested and spent two years in detention over no fault of his own."
What’s more, the judges added, Nimri’s interrogators failed to carry out basic procedures such as checking his alibi, setting-up a lineup or going through CCTV footage, where Nimri doesn’t appear.
"These actions would have been taken had the defendant been investigated by any regular police investigator, at any police station in Israel. Israel Police investigators know the suspect's claims must be checked immediately, even if they don't believe him. Unfortunately, Shin Bet did not conduct the investigative procedures that are commonplace in the police and led the defendant to confess he had visited the hotel."
The second suspect in the case, Ashraf Salameh, has admitted his guilt but also retracted it several times, and criminal proceedings are still ongoing.
"There are times in which even the best people fall into the trap of narrow thinking and vision and, without malice or negligence, ignore serious problems with the investigative material,” Nimri’s lawyer, Ester Bar-Zion, told reporters.
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