Questions are being raised about the involvement of Israeli doctors in the suspected torture of a young Palestinian detainee who died in custody last month. Sharmila Devi reports.
The death of a Palestinian prisoner in disputed circumstances in an Israeli prison has reignited a longstanding controversy over alleged physician complicity in torture as well as sparking renewed Palestinian anger over the estimated 4600 prisoners held by Israel.
The Israeli Medical Association (IMA) denied that medical professionals were involved in torture or abuse and said that as far as it knew, torture was not approved or used by Israeli security forces or prisons. However, human-rights campaigners say Palestinian prisoners have long suffered from beatings, sleep deprivation, prolonged and painful handcuffing, humiliation, and medical neglect—considered torture under international standards.
Arafat Jaradat, a 30-year-old petrol attendant with two children, was arrested on Feb 18 on suspicion of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails during a West Bank demonstration held last November against Israeli military action in the Gaza strip. Palestinians say his arrest, months after the demonstration, and his interrogation was part of a longstanding Israeli policy to coerce prisoners to become informants after their release.
Palestinian leaders say some 800 000 Palestinians have been detained by Israeli forces since 1967, and Jaradat was the 203rd prisoner to die. He died after several days of interrogation by Israeli’s Shin Bet internal security service on Feb 23 at Israel’s Megiddo prison. An autopsy was held the next day at Israel’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in the presence of Saber Aloul, the Palestinian Authority’s chief pathologist, who said bruising on the body was evidence of torture.
Israel’s health ministry said on Feb 28, after examining new findings from the autopsy that there was no evidence Jaradat was physically abused or poisoned, nor was it possible to determine his cause of death.
Israeli officials had originally attributed his death to a heart attack and said bruising and broken ribs were “characteristic findings of a resuscitation, which the medical crew from the Israel Prison Service and Magen David Adom engaged in for 50 minutes in an effort to save his life”.
Additional samples taken from the body were still undergoing microscopic and toxicology tests and results were not expected for several weeks. “The signs that appeared during the autopsy show clearly that he was subjected to severe torture that led immediately to his death”, Issa Qaraka, the Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs said at a Ramallah press conference after being briefed by the Palestinian pathologist who attended the autopsy.
Kamil Sabbagh, Jaradat’s lawyer, told an Israeli military judge a couple of days before his client’s death that he was being forced to sit for long periods during interrogation, had complained of back pain, and seemed terrified of returning to the Shin Bet detention centre where he was being held. The judge ordered an examination by a prison doctor. Jaradat died at Megiddo prison and it was not known when he was moved there.
Derek Summerfield, an honorary senior lecturer at the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry and campaigner against what he called Israeli physicians’ violations of human rights, says he wanted to know what part doctors played in the circumstances of Jaradat’s death. “By Israel’s own admission, Jaradat was seen by Israeli doctors 2 days earlier and they found him in good health. The key medical ethical question is what were these doctors examining him for, if not to assess whether he could withstand torture”, he tells The Lancet. “This is precisely what the campaign regarding medical collusion with torture in Israel was launched for in 2009 and it continues to run.”
The IMA said in a statement: “The IMA vociferously objects to the claim that medical professionals are involved in torture or abuse, and we will continue to do everything possible with the tools available to us to inform doctors about their obligation to report and to conduct themselves appropriately.”
The IMA and human rights organisations have called for responsibility for prisoners’ health to be taken away from the Israel Prison Service (IPS) and given to an outside body, such as health maintenance organisations (HMO) or the health ministry, which a year ago set up a standing committee to which doctors can report suspicions of torture. “It’s true that every doctor has a conflict of interest between the patient and the system in the HMOs and also in the army”, Avinoam Reches, who heads the IMA’s Ethics Board, told Ha’aretz newspaper. “But in the case of the IPS, the problem is severe because the treatment is given to people who have no freedom of choice whatsoever.”
Palestinians and human-rights groups demanded an independent investigation into Jaradat’s death.