Thursday, July 21, 2011

In the West Bank, there is no justice, even for children

Hundreds of Palestinian minors were arrested for weeks and even months by Israel in the last five years. Those children – including 34 of them under the age of 14 – were tried in military courts. Only one was acquitted.
The military justice system is biased against its detainees even more than the Israeli one. Minors suspected of throwing stones are, as a rule, detained until the end of the process, which can last two years. The minors and their lawyers – some of them, B’tselem found, show a distinct lack of interest in their clients – face a dilemma: Most trials, as in Israel, end in a plea bargain. A minor who pleads guilty, even if he did not commit the crime, will be out of prison faster than if he insists on trial and manages to clear himself; Choosing the bargain may lead to his release on the same day. Rashid ‘Awadi, aged 15, received an offer he couldn’t refuse from his lawyer: Plead, and get a reduced sentence. The prosecution claimed it could produce a soldier who saw ‘Awadi throwing stones, but finding the soldier and dragging him to the witness bench would take eight months, which ‘Awadi would spend in prison. ‘Awadi pled guilty, and was out in a month.

In one extraordinary case, extraordinary in that there was an actual trial and in that the minors involved were released on bail after “only” 27 days in custody, the military prosecution retracted an indictment against eight boys. This happened after their lawyer proved that the soldiers testifying against them lied. The soldiers claimed they arrested the boys near a road, but the lawyer threatened to bring forth witnesses who will prove they were arrested within their school, and that they were in class when the stones were allegedly thrown. The prosecution retracted the indictment, which was bit too late for grown man who was already convicted on the false testimony of the same soldiers, and who spent eight months in prison.

The trials are held in Hebrew, which neither the accused nor their family understands; they are forced to rely on interpreters, whose work is sometimes shoddy. In a large number of cases, when minors are brought before a judge for their bail hearing, they don’t know they are entitled to lawyer. In rare cases, the court appoints them one – which is standard practice in any self-respecting justice system. Not that bail is likely; Most motions are denied. DCI, which represents Palestinian detainees, found that the rate of accepted bail motions is 23% among minors. Even in such cases, some minors were not discharged, since they could not post bail. Anyone denied bail is detained until the end of process. Unless, of course, they confess.

B’tselem also found that, contrary to law, the IDF detained two minors younger than 12, which is the age of criminal responsibility. These two cases were documented by B’tselem volunteers, so there may be others. In one of those cases, that of nine-year old Mahmoud ‘Alameh, the officer who arrested him and drove him from the place, handcuffed and blindfolded, informed the people of his village the child will be released only if stone throwing from that village ends. In clearer words, an IDF officer kidnapped a nine-year old child and held him hostage. ‘Alameh was held by the IDF gunmen for five hours, without any contact with his parents, even though his father was nearby and begged to see him. The incident may well have lasted longer, if not for the heavy pressure brought to bear by B’tselem.

In a majority of the cases – 30 out of 50 minors interviewed by B’tselem – the arrest is carried out, contrary to regulation, at night. You may note that there are precious few stone-throwing incidents at night, so the forces are not in any immediate danger. The minors are routinely handcuffed and blindfolded, though they do not show resistance. (Myself, I always wondered about the blindfolding: We were told it was for “field security” reasons, but there are very few Palestinians who do not know where the local military base is). Contrary to Israeli regulations, which stipulate that a minor will not be interrogated unless a parent or another adult known to the minor is present, this is not the case in most arrests in the West Bank. The psychological effect on a child, who was just abducted from his house by sometimes-hooded gunmen, is easy to imagine.
In the West Bank, there is no justice, even for children

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