In the Law-Train project subsidized by the European Union, Belgium, Spain and Portugal were to work with Israel to develop interrogation techniques. “Portugal has already withdrawn, and if Belgium and KU Leuven do not, this will mean that they are agreeing with the use of practices of torture during interrogation,” said one Belgian mission which traveled to examine the situation on the ground.
In May 2015, the Law-Train project of the European Union was launched. Of the total budget of 5,095,687.50 EUR, half goes to the Israeli Bar-Ilan University, which coordinates the project, and the Israeli Ministry of Public Security.
The stated aim of the collaboration among the police and the judicial authorities of Spain, Portugal and Belgium and the KU Leuven is to share interrogation techniques and adapt them to the various participating countries in order to confront new challenges, mainly focused on drug-related crimes. In August 2016, Portugal withdrew from the project, which runs until 30 April 2018.
“The country did so under the pretext of financial problems, but we know that it was because of the controversial nature of the project,” said Alexis Deswaef. Along with Eva Brems, Professor of Human Rights at the University of Ghent, and Reine Meylaerts of the Study Group for Translation and Intercultural Transfer of the KU Leuven, he visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to investigate the torture by the Israeli police. “The KU Leuven refuses to take a position. But as long as Belgium and the university cooperate with Law-Train, they will legitimize the use of torture during interrogations,” Meylaerts said.
14 years old, blindfolded and bound
In the fifth periodic review of Israel, released in June 2016, the UN Committee Against Torture accused the state of using torture and other unlawful practices during interrogations by police and prison staff.
“In our offices, we read these things in many reports, but when we hear them here from the mouths of the victims themselves, it is at a whole new level,” explains Brems. “There is no alternative but to confront reality and realize that there is no other option: Belgium must withdraw from this collaboration with the Israeli police.”
“EU funds for the border police problematic”
“We receive many reports about police violence,” says Rachel Stroumsa, executive director of the Israeli NGO, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI). “In Israel itself, there is not so much a pattern of recurring abuses or violence during interrogations. (*) The country has excellent youth legislation. The problem is that these laws are not applied in East Jerusalem. There, we constantly see human rights violations in the form of intimidation and sexual abuse, violence, absence of lawyers or parents when questioning minors.”
“In addition, the Ministry of Public Security coordinates not only the Israeli police but also the border police, which poses a problem,” Stroumsa said. “These agents often carry out this work as part of their military service. They act like the army, but are considered police officers.”
“They are often very young agents, with little experience, who use lethal and non-lethal weapons at demonstrations and checkpoints.”
“This is not really a reflection of our faith in human rights and butterflies,” quips Stroums. “This is something very concrete. There is a complete lack of justification or accountability. Thus, Israel seems to hide its eyes to these practices which I find disturbing.”
“Investing in legitimizing torture”
“And that is exactly what Belgium would do if, along with KU Leuven, we continue to participate in Law-Train,” explains Deswaef. “Our federal prosecutor thinks that Belgium has only five or six joint files with Israel when it comes to drug offenses, the subject of Law-Train.”
“It is likely that here, Israel is looking for legitimacy,” Stroumsa confirms. “The image of Israel in the outside world is very important to our country: Professional ethics and pride are crucial. The lawyers and judges of the High Court of Justice are too often ashamed of their image before their international colleagues.”
“No Will to Change”
In response to an NGO campaign against Law-Train, the EU defends this project through the words of a cabinet member, Manuel Aleixo. “The interrogation techniques that will be taught via Law-Train follows the pattern of investigative interviewing recommended by the UN (…) The technique is based on objectivity, impartiality and frankness. It is a model that aims to collect information (and not, therefore, a confession-based technique.)”
“If the EU believes that the Israeli police intend to learn anything in this training, I must undeceive them,” Stroumsa explains. “There is no initiative of our law enforcement officers that shows that they are trying to change their current techniques. They do not intend to learn anything from their Belgian colleagues.”
“The Federal Prosecutor, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Torfs: all wash their hands of the problem,” Deswaef said.
“The EU has approved the project, so we are following,” says Meylaerts. “But in this case we are complicit in the massive violations of human rights, such as the torture practices and the structural oppression of the Israeli occupation. There is a limit. And this is not only about the headquarters of the Israeli police, which, in violation of international law, is located in occupied East Jerusalem. The question is about what collaboration is about, when it contributes to the oppression of human beings. Here, the EU is also guilty, as is Belgium and the KU Leuven.”
“The University of Ghent already has a human rights policy. Our campaign has a wider impact and it also addresses the role universities play in legitimizing human rights violations,” Brems adds. “Both the KU Leuven and the Belgian state can send a clear signal to the EU. If the Union can no longer find countries to participate in such projects, collaboration may not take place at all in the future.”
“Hence the fact that we are now addressing Prime Minister Charles Michel, who, from 5 to 8 February, will visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories in person,” concludes Deswaef. “He can collect the same information that we have found. If one analyzes this information objectively, one can only arrive at the same conclusion: Belgium absolutely cannot continue to participate in Law-Train.”
* Editors’ note (via Pour la Palestine): Recently, Palestinian citizens of Israel visited Belgium, where they testified to the torture in Israeli prisons and the fact that they are not treated like Jewish Israelis.