17 April 2011

Narratives Behind Locked Doors (1)

Each year on 17 April, Palestinian Prisoners Day is commemorated in order to support and recognize Palestinians currently in custody in Israel. Since 1979, the date marks the release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel as part of a prisoner swap in 1974. Between 1967 and 1988 more than 600,000 Palestinians were held in Israeli jails for a week or more, constituting approximately 1/5 of the total population. Moreover, from the beginning of the 2000 “Al Aqsa” Second Intifada, Israel detained another 70,000 individuals bringing the total number of Palestinians who have been detained in Israel since 1967 to 760,000. Currently, approximately 6,500 Palestinians are detained in Israel including approximately 251 children and 37 women. These prisoners are held in17 investigation and detention centers and prisons throughout Israel. Additionally, approximately 241 administrative detainees and 14 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council are held in custody by Israel.

PCHR notes with particular concern the many violations of human rights and humanitarian law that prisoners are subjected to while in Israeli detention. In particular violations of Articles 7, 9 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Israel is a State Party. Moreover, under Israeli military regulations which are applied in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), Palestinian children are treated as adults at the age of 16. This is in blatant contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which states that a child is anyone below 18 years old. Israel is a signatory to the CRC. As a result, Palestinian children are subjected to the same detention regime as adult prisoners.

Prisoners in Israeli custody are often subject to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, including poor detention conditions, denial of access to counsel or family visits, deprivation of health care and many other policies that violate human rights law. The UN Committee Against Torture has criticized Israel for failing to undertake credible and effective investigations by Israel into torture-related allegations. Prisoners in administrative detention face the additional burden of not knowing when, or if, they will be released; the Israeli administrative detention law allows for the arrest of persons not charged with committing a crime and their detention for renewable 6 month terms.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights’ (PCHR) notes with concern that none of the approximately 700 Gazans in Israeli jails have been allowed to receive visitors for nearly four years. Not only are these prisoners denied visits but they are also denied phone calls or mail from relatives. Only occasionally and sporadically are these prisoners allowed to communicate through letters. The blanket prohibition of family visits exacerbates the already difficult conditions of confinement and constitutes a violation of international human rights law.

Arwa Abdel-Rahim, a Mother of two Prisoners

Arwa Abdel-Rahim is the mother of two young prisoners, one of whom was arrested when he was still a minor, and both of whom have been kept in solitary confinement. Ms. Abdel-Rahim, 46, lives in Nour Shams Refugee Camp in Tulkarem, a governorate in the northern West Bank and, in addition to the prisoners, has two more children, a young daughter and son.

Arwa's oldest son, Fadi, sustained a severe injury when he was shot in the knee during an Israeli invasion of the Nour Shams camp in 2000. "He was not able to move for a year, he spent a year in bed," his mother says. Fadi had been in rehabilitation receiving physical therapy for three months at the Abu Raya Rehabilitation Centre in Ramallah at the time of his arrest on 30 March 2002. "Special Forced arrested him while he was picking up his medication, they did not even let him bring his crutches." Fadi was initially brought to the Maskobiyeh interrogation centre in occupied East Jerusalem. "He was blindfolded and of course without his crutches he was unable to walk. The soldiers took him out of the military jeep and push him onto the ground, laughing. They tortured him in ways like this all the way to the interrogation centre."

Fadi's trial lasted two years. In the end, he was accused of taking part in activities against the occupation and sentenced to 11 years in prison. "Initially after his arrest his situation was very bad, but we did not know about it. He did not get any medication in prison. Thankfully his health is better now." Fadi wants to pursue university studies, but so far has not been allowed to: "Before he was arrested, he finished a course as a flight attendant in Jordan before he came back to Palestine at the beginning of the Intifada. He had just graduated and he was planning to continue at university, but then he got arrested." For seven years, Fadi has attempted to enroll in a university programme. "Nine months ago, he had already paid his tuition fees to study at Hebrew University, but the prison administration punished him by putting him in solitary confinement. They told him that he had to discontinue his studies." Arwa's second son, Yasser, had also hoped to attend university after finishing secondary school – "as I myself have always dreamed to see one of my sons at university. But they arrested him, too."

Yasser was arrested at the age of 17, still a high school student. On the night of the arrest in March 2008, "Israeli soldiers came to our house, they surrounded the house, broke the doors, and made us leave the house so they could search it. Then they took him out, blindfolded and handcuffed him, and took him into the interrogation centre at Huwarra, for 22 or 24 days. They accused him of things, but he did not make a confession. A lawyer was able to see him during court sessions. He was sentenced to six months in administrative detention. One day before the sentence ended, his administrative detention was renewed for another six months. Then again, 24 hours before the following six months ended, they renewed the detention for another six months. During the last six months, his lawyer appealed and the court agreed to minimize the sentence to three months, so in total it was about 15 months that he spent in prison." The uncertainty of the length of the sentence is what makes the Israeli practice of renewable administrative detention so agonizing for Palestinians, as Arwa says: "Someone who is imprisoned with a sentence knows when he will be released, but someone in administrative detention does not know."

Only one month after Yasser's release, on 22 July 2009, he was arrested again. "The Israelis returned to our home at 4 am. This time they did not knock on the door; we were asleep, they just unhinged the doors while we were asleep and took him." According to his mother, it was "exactly like the first time, he was charged with the same accusations, but he did not confess to anything, nor did anyone else. Nevertheless, they charged him on the basis of 'secret evidence' – they said there is a secret file and so he was put in administrative detention. They gave him a two-month administrative sentence. […] He does not know when he is going to get out. They take him, they renew his detention suddenly, and even if he gets out, they may arrest him again within 20 days or a month. So he is exposed to the possibility of suddenly being arrested all his life."

Permits for prison visits are difficult to obtain and the travel is often strenuous, made more difficult by the fact that it is not guaranteed that a visiting family member can see their loved one at the end of the trip. "I visited Yasser at Megiddo prison once since they sentenced him. I went to visit him again last week, but I did not find him at the prison. They told me that they had taken him away for questioning, but I have no idea about what. A week after that, two days ago, I went to visit my older son, Fadi, who is imprisoned at Nafha Prison. The same thing happened. I entered the terminal and I was inspected and then I spent three hours on the bus - and it was hard because it was during Ramadan. But then they ordered us to get out of the bus to be inspected again and to go back home because there was no police car available to accompany the bus to the prison. So, this month, I was not able to visit either one of my sons."

The security inspections family members have to undergo during prison visits are often degrading. "Sometimes female soldiers take us to inspection rooms, but during inspection they always try to make us take off our clothes. Once when I was going to visit my son at Megiddo prison, there was a young lady whom they asked to undress but she refused, so they did not allow her to visit. It also happened to me once that they tried to make me take off all my clothes, but I refused at the beginning. However, the soldier told me that I will not be allowed to visit if I refuse to. It had been a long time that I had not visited my son, because I was not allowed for ‘security reasons’, as they claimed. It had been five years that I had not seen my oldest son. So I was forced to agree to be inspected, the way she wanted, in order to be able to finally see my son."

The prison conditions are straining for those inside, but also for the mother trying to help her imprisoned sons: "Fadi's leg is still painful, especially during winter. He always asks for extra clothes and underwear. Nafha prison is in the desert where it is very cold in the night and during winter, and the pain becomes worse in the cold. I have tried to send him some underwear, but it has been over a year since he got some of the items I sent him, not even all of them." In addition, "the food is very bad, they have to buy the food they want to eat. We send them money in order to buy food, but we also face difficulties in sending them money. It is very hard for us, who live here in the West Bank to find another Arab who lives in Israel to give him money, in order to send it to our son. Sometimes he tells me about the prices [at the canteen] and I am shocked, one cannot imagine how expensive it is."

Awra says that both of her sons were subjected to solitary confinement. "For any little thing, they punish them and put them into solitary confinement. Yasser was in solitary confinement for ten days and Fadi faced the same. He was put into a room, which was one square meter, where he was not able to sleep or to sit, except when he was squatting. The quality of food was very bad and the quantities very small, so he did not eat enough. He could not see anybody, nor could he speak to anyone. He was not allowed to see any of his fellow prisoners; they knew nothing about him. When Yasser was released from solitary confinement, I visited him and I found that his voice was different, so I asked him about it and he said that while he was in solitary confinement he was trying to talk to the other prisoners in the sections far away from him, through the water pipes. He used to yell whenever he heard the sound of feet walking, assuming if a prisoner was walking by, he may have a chance to talk to somebody."

Asked about the effect the imprisonment of her two oldest children has on her family, Awra says: "It is really hard for the family. Although we are not the ones in prison, we do not have stability. Their little sister was born while Fadi was imprisoned. She used to cry during visits to the prison because she could not touch him through the glass. Even last week when we went to visit Yasser and they did not allow us to visit, all relatives went inside to visit and I stayed outside with her. She started to cry and to say 'tell them my brother is inside and I want to see him.' When I see her like this I cannot bear it anymore, I start crying and even all people around us start crying while she is saying ‘my brother is inside, tell the soldier that my brother is inside!'"

Source: Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), 17 April 2011

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