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Human wrongs

Al-Ahram Weekly – 31 January 2002

Like thousands of other Palestinians, Abed Al-Rahman Al-Ahmar tasted the bitter fruits of Israeli occupation during the first Intifada when he was jailed without trial for throwing stones at soldiers.

But in the years of the Oslo peace process and now during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the 34-year-old human rights worker from Bethlehem has been learning an even harsher lesson about Israel’s policy on human rights for Palestinians.

Arrested in May last year in Jerusalem, Al-Ahmar has been held in “administrative detention,” Israel’s term for imprisonment without trial or charges, for nine months. The only information his lawyer, Allegra Pacheco, can get from the Shin Bet security service is that he is considered a danger to the Israeli public.

Al-Ahmar has not been told of his crimes or given the opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses. All the evidence against him is secret. When his case came before a military judge in November the detention order was automatically renewed until May 2002. It can be renewed every six months, indefinitely.

Al-Ahmar is no stranger to detention. As well as his arrests during both Intifadas, he was held twice as an administrative detainee in the 1990s, first in 1993 and then again in late 1995 — on the second occasion he remained in custody for two and a half years.

During Al-Ahmar’s earlier incarcerations he was tortured for long periods. One torture method, known by the Shin Bet as the shabeh, involves the suspect being tightly handcuffed to a chair whose seat slants downwards. It has left him with a severe back problem and a hiatal hernia, a tear to his stomach lining.

Each time he has been arrested the Shin Bet has claimed that Al-Ahmar is a member of the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which killed Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, last October in retaliation for the assassination of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa.

But, says Pacheco, if the Shin Bet has evidence of Al-Ahmar’s involvement with the PFLP, it should put him on trial — as it has done with thousands of other members of outlawed organisations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Pacheco believes that Al-Ahmar has been singled out because of his public criticisms of the Oslo peace process. Two months before his arrest, he was interviewed on Israeli TV, arguing that the only solution to the present conflict is the establishment of a single democratic state in which Jews and Arabs live together in peace.

He may also have upset the authorities over his close ties to Israeli human rights groups, particularly Be’tselem, and his work assisting journalists covering the Intifada in the West Bank.

Al-Ahmar is not the only administrative detainee; there are currently 40 Palestinians being held in detention at Megiddo military prison in northern Israel. Such detentions violate international law unless the suspect poses an immediate threat to state security — what is often termed the “ticking bomb” scenario.

Unlike the last Intifada, when several thousand Palestinians were held in Ktiziot temporary prison camp in the Negev, there have been few administrative detentions this time.

But, said Pacheco: “The numbers are rising sharply and the detainees are being held for much longer. Israel is using administrative orders as a way to jail people when there isn’t the evidence to justify a trial.”

There has been little effort by the Palestinian Authority to publicise Al-Ahmar’s plight. In his role as a fieldworker for the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, in the Deheishe refugee camp, he was a vocal critic of human rights abuses in the Palestinian Authority.

Instead, his case has been taken up by hundreds of international activists, who lobbied the Israeli government after Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.

The justice ministry wrote back telling many of them that Al- Ahmar was involved in the shooting of a settler, although it gave no further details.

Pacheco was surprised to learn of this allegation, especially when she had been refused any information by the courts.

Also surprising is that Al-Ahmar was not asked about the shooting during his 34 days of interrogation. In fact, according to Al-Ahmar — and he is supported by the interrogation records, says Pacheco — he was only interrogated for seven of the 34 days he was held in captivity. At one point, the military judge threatened to release Al-Ahmar after the Shin Bet failed to add any new information to his file, following 16 days of detention.

“The idea that he is an immediate danger to security is given the lie by his interrogation,” said Pacheco. “Why did they leave him alone for so much of the time?”

She added: “The interrogation records show that they asked him generally about his political opinions but not about any specific acts.”

Pacheco is also angry that signs that her client had been tortured were ignored by the presiding military judge, Eliyahu Mazza. He refused to look at marks to Al-Ahmar’s wrists allegedly caused by tight handcuffing, or take account of Al-Ahmar’s vomiting during the proceedings.

Al-Ahmar claims that he was once again put in the shabeh position, even though this form of torture was banned by Israel’s Supreme Court three years ago.

Hannah Friedman, director of the Israeli pressure group the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, says military courts have been reluctant to consider evidence of suspects’ subjection to physical and psychological abuse.

“To get round the 1999 ruling, interrogators have developed other methods for breaking down prisoners,” she said. “Now they deprive them of sleep, expose them to extremes of heat and cold, hold them in cells not fit for human habitation and shackle them for prolonged periods in painful positions.

“Anywhere else such practices would clearly constitute torture.”

The Israeli parliament is considering legislation, popularly known as the Shin Bet law, that would, for the first time, define the powers of the security service. One proposed clause would legally sanction the use of “moderate physical pressure” — a euphemism, say critics, for torture.

Friedman says her committee has also started to catalogue a rise in cases where the Shin Bet prevents prisoners from meeting with their lawyers or even knowing that they have attorneys. “We believe the security service denies detainees this basic right so that illegal interrogation methods don’t come to light.”

The conditions at Megiddo, where Al-Ahmar is being held with 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners, most of them still awaiting trial, were sharply criticised last month in a report by Physicians for Human Rights. They described the jail as overcrowded and condemned the authorities for denying basic rights such as family visits and the chance to make a phone call.

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