May 19, 2016

Jailed without offense

I was shocked to learn that Muhammad's life had changed from one moment to the other...

Muhammad is a Palestinian Bedouin from Al-Zaim, 52 years old, with two wives, who have a bunch of children each. He is a quiet and peaceful person, trying to make his living from a simple petrol station. Most of the day he sits at the station and drinks coffee and tea with friends. Unfortunately, in recent years he suffers from health problems and he had to go through surgery several times. Though as a Palestinian he suffers badly from the occupation, he keeps away from politics or anti-Israeli activity, at least as far as I can see. Muhammad and I are friends for over eight years. We live only about 3 km. (2 miles) apart. I visited him many times; at the petrol station, in his home, and in the hospital. He, like many of my Palestinian friends, cannot visit me, since he has no entry permit to Israel.

One late night in March 2015, there were knocks on his door, soldiers entered the home where the family was deep asleep, and he was taken into administrative detention. No explanation; he just disappeared behind bars...

Administrative detention

By now Muhammad is in jail for over a year and there is not much one can do about this, since he is not accused of anything. Think about it... He is imprisoned while there is not any evidence that he committed an offense. The sole reason for his detention is that the authorities fear he might take some terrorist action, which they want to prevent. The information submitted to the judge is classified and not even accessible to his lawyer, which is the usual procedure in such cases. Administrative detention can be extended each time for up to half a year, and there is no limit to the number of times it can be prolonged.

Let me explain: "Administrative detention is implemented solely on the basis of an administrative order, without either indictment or trial. Under certain circumstances, this type of detention may be lawful. However, due to the substantial injury to due process inherent in this measure, international law stipulates that it may be exercised only in very exceptional cases – and then only as a last possible resort, when there are no other means available to prevent the danger. Nevertheless, Israeli authorities routinely employ administrative detention. Over the years, thousands of Palestinians have been held in Israeli custody as administrative detainees for extended periods of time." (Administrative detention, B'tselem)

There are only few countries that practice administrative detention, Administrative detention is criticized severely by human organizations, such as Amnesty International, since it is in breach with international law.

Muhammad is occasionally in the opportunity to call me from the jail. In the last call he informed me that, despite his expectations, his detention was prolonged for another four months. He asked if there's anything I could do about it. I had written a letter on his behalf in the past, which didn't make a difference, and I didn't believe there's anything more I could do. However, I contacted his lawyer. The lawyer suggested that he'll try to get me heard when Muhammad's case will be brought before a judge in order to ratify the extra four months.

The court was a military court in Ofer prison, and the case would be handled a few days later, behind closed doors. Chances that I would be allowed into the army base were slim. Chances that I'd be accepted into the courtroom and heard were even slimmer. Chances that whatever I said would make any impact versus some secret security report were close to nihil. With my professional and national background, a psychologist with Israeli license, I was the only one - except for his lawyer - in a position to possibly have any impact. Therefore, I decided to try against the odds.

The trial

Sunday morning I went to the military court. During the weekend I had wondered whether I'll succeed to get in or not, and asked myself what I could possibly  say to have any impact. I prepared a file and dressed up in my most officially looking clothes.  I had only told Muhammad's brother, Ahmad, that I'll try to get into court, and asked not to tell Muhammad, in order not to raise expectations.

I came to the entrance of the army base and with the help of the lawyer I was allowed in. I could bring with me only some paperwork; no phone, no wallet or anything else. This part went more smoothly than expected. It is customary to have a body search and, if needed, take off parts of one's clothing to check, similar to strict airport security, but this time I simply passed the metal detector and was free to enter the waiting space of the court.

The question was whether the judge would let me into the courtroom; something that would be doubtful since administrative detention cases are dealt with behind closed doors. I waited for over two enervating hours, which is worth a story by itself. Suddenly, the lawyer called me into the caravan, which functioned as a courtroom... There was Muhammad, my friend, sitting with his feet shackled. Next to him another prisoner. Apart from them, only the judge, a couple of lawyers and some prison staff were present.

Giving testimony

Muhammad and I were happy to meet, but we were not allowed to talk. The lawyer introduced me to the judge, dressed in army uniform, and the prosecutor, an army officer as well, objected immediately. She explained that it is unheard of that I'd be allowed to testify in such a case, and she quoted the law on this issue. In the meantime, the interpreter, a young soldier, who had translated the first few lines for Muhammad, was now playing with his cell-phone. No one seemed to care, but when I asked him to get back to his job, so that my friend would understand, he did so. (I had to repeat my request several times during the hearing.) My heart sank and I was ready to get up and leave. However, the judge overruled the objection, and stated that if the prosecution can bring in army/security witnesses, the defense should be allowed as well to bring in a witness.

The lawyer hadn't prepared me for what was to come. I was asked to speak freely, but didn't know what would be best to say in these circumstances. The tension was high. There was some discussion whether my statement would be character evidence or an expert opinion. The prosecutor objected to the latter, so it became the first and the judge asked me not to use any professional terms. (When I used a psychological term anyway, the prosecutor objected and I was warned.) I spoke about our friendship, about Muhammad's calm personality and about his family and health issues. The lawyer claimed that the fact that Muhammad has a Jewish friend shows how unlikely it is that he is a terrorist. He added that he himself doesn't even have Jewish friends. Then, I learned that Muhammad was arrested only because he had had telephone contact with a distant family member in Gaza who had something to do with guns. Muhammad tried to explain to the judge that the fact that he had spoken with this person, doesn't mean that he has anything against Israel.

The judge went for a lunch break, and didn't return. We were informed that he will write his decision only next week. Although the judge made a proper impression, it is unlikely that my friend will be freed. At the same time, the fact that I was heard in such a case is a precedent, and could possibly be helpful in other cases.

To be continued...

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