FARA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — The Israeli military commander in the occupied West Bank conceded Monday that Palestinian Arab youths have been mistreated by interrogators at a military detention center here in the past, but he added that procedures have been changed in the last 15 months.
The commander, who under Israeli military censorship rules can be identified only as Col. Yaacov, talked with four visiting Western journalists nearly 10 weeks after the International Commission of Jurists, in Geneva, published a report charging that the Fara Detention Center here is used "not as a normal prison but as an intimidation center."
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said at the time that the report was "total nonsense" and added that he would allow impartial observers to visit the prison.
During Monday's 3 1/2-hour tour of Fara, believed to be the first by Western journalists, Col. Yaacov credited the deterrent power of the facility with a 30% decrease last year in the number of West Bank stone-throwing incidents.
But he denied charges of widespread physical torture and psychological intimidation. He said the Palestine Liberation Organization promoted such charges in order to focus political pressure on Fara and minimize its success.
Built as a police station in 1942, during British rule over what was then Palestine, the Fara center was reopened by the Israelis in May, 1982, after an upsurge in disturbances that overtaxed existing prison facilities. Since then, more than 7,000 West Bank Arabs have been detained here, most of them without trial.
There are more than 300 prisoners here now, although the place was built to accommodate 200. Fifty others were released last week without charges being filed against them, and 84 of those detained have been convicted and are serving terms averaging six to seven months.
About 60% of the prisoners here are between 15 and 17 years old. The great majority were arrested for throwing stones or for some other violation of public order, according to the military authorities. The youngest prisoners are 14. Jordanian law, which technically is still in force on the West Bank, permits imprisonment at age 12, the authorities said, and 18 days of detention without charge.
There have been charges of mistreatment almost since the Israelis opened the camp. In December, 1982, an army sergeant was found guilty of beating prisoners there and sentenced to six months in jail. Two years ago, army Capt. Mohammed Ghadir, a section chief at Fara, was convicted by a military court of assaulting prisoners. He was demoted and sentenced to two months in jail, although the sentence was suspended.
Not long afterward, a police staff sergeant, Moshe Beeton, was charged with beating a 30-year-old schoolteacher, and last September he was convicted.
Earlier this year, three interrogators were exonerated of mistreatment charges brought against them by the military prosecutor in 1984. The three, along with Ghadir, are still assigned to Fara.
"I think he learned his lesson," Col. Yaacov said of Ghadir, "and I think he is now the best one here."
The critical report was prepared by Law in the Service of Man, a West Bank affiliate of the Geneva group, and was its second on the subject of Fara. It was entitled "Torture and Intimidation in the West Bank," and it included signed affidavits by 20 Palestinian youths who said they were beaten, sexually abused and otherwise mistreated at the facility.
The camp, on a hillside about five miles northeast of Nablus, is surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence. A sign inside the gates says, in Hebrew, "Welcome."
Israeli military officials, prisoners and lawyers agreed in separate interviews that the treatment of detainees at Fara has improved. Col. Yaacov said that since January, 1984, the interrogations have been carried out only by specially trained military personnel. Before that, police interrogators like Moshe Beeton were sometimes used. The colonel said the military interrogators have been trained "for a long period . . . weeks, even months."
He said the main point emphasized in this training is that "for us it is better that 10 will be released and no one will be charged than that one will be charged (as a result of) torturing."
Still, he said, since the changes were introduced, more prisoners confess--60% or more now, compared with 30% before 1984. The youths whose affidavits made up the report by Law in the Service of Man were detained between December, 1982, and April, 1984.
Prisoners and lawyers alike said prisoners who have been convicted or who have confessed and are awaiting trial are treated better than prisoners in the interrogation wing. This wing is known as "the stables," because it was used as that when the British were here.
Journalists were permitted to speak only with prisoners whose interrogations had been completed. A request to interview prisoners in "the stables" was denied.