Rachel Stroumsa served as an intelligence officer in the IDF in the early 90s, and she cites her military service as part of the reason she now leads the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI).
“It was the height of buses being blown up,” she says. “I thought and still think that what I did was important, useful and necessary. But then in 1999 the High Court banned torture and I was horrified to discover that had been going on — that what we had done was used to torture people. I felt betrayed.”
Dr. Strousma became a secretary at PCATI six years ago, rising to become its director in 2016.
“We give a lot to the state and we do it happily but in return the state owes us transparency; it owes us keeping to a basic decency,” she says.
When people hear about an organization fighting torture in Israel, they likely think of Palestinian prisoners and the Shabak, also known as the General Security Service. PCATI does handle such cases. But in the last year and a half, PCATI began working with an unexpected population — the Haredim. This is a closed community generally unwilling to cooperate with the state.
As with other complaints of police brutality, PCATI helps Haredim who want to file a complaint with the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigative Department. PCATI accompanies witnesses and follows up on cases.
Today, Haredim comprise about a third of PCATI‘s police-brutality caseload. It took time and work to gain the community’s trust, but now they approach PCATI with complaints.
PCATI works closely with Shatil. It receives extensive consulting services. And it began working on these cases after joining Shatil’s Freedom of Assembly Forum. It was in this context that PCATI’s lawyer observed demonstrations and realized there was serious and systematic police brutality targeting Haredim, whose demonstrations are not often covered by the media.
“Police are aware of the fact that the demonstrators won’t film what’s happening to them on Shabbat,” says Stroumsa.
“When you’re on the ground and there are five policemen around you, there is no earthly reason for violence,” explains Stroumsa, “certainly when you’re in custody and handcuffed. And yet we see these occurrences fairly consistently. What’s also consistent is a lack of adequate response on part of The Police Investigative Department to these cases. I would expect them to be horrified and to say they will make sure it never happens again — and instead these cases are swept under the rug.”
“We find the Police Investigative Department doesn’t conduct active investigations or look for witnesses. Instead, our lawyer does that,” Stroumsa adds. “Too often cases are closed for lack of public interest or lack of evidence – or if they’re so egregious they can’t be closed, they end up in disciplinary hearings for officers involved rather than in criminal hearings.”
Stroumsa is clear about the goal. “We don’t want to see police officers prosecuted. What we want to see is a different attitude.”
PCATI‘s charges were backed by a recent State Comptroller report which found that police resort too quickly to violence and that there is a lack of accountability in the system.
“I think there is a growing public awareness that there’s going to have to be a fundamental shift in the way the state polices its communities,” Stroumsa concludes.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons