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Edition 9 Volume 10 - March 01, 2012

Prisoners and the Arab spring

Holding a mirror to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  - Yossi Alpher
Were Israel to treat all terrorists equally, it might be harder to challenge this approach.

Military courts are a weapon  - an interview with Amal Bakry
Turning civilians over to military courts is a weapon used by the regime to take down its opponents.

Continuity in Egypt  - an interview with Saad Eddin Ibrahim
The military officers do the same thing now as the Mubarak regime then.

Seeking a new horizon for Palestinian prisoners  - Shawqi Issa
The absence of a strategy concerning the prisoners is leading a search for new horizons.

Holding a mirror to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
 Yossi Alpher

The treatment of Israeli prisoners by Palestinians and Hizballah, and correspondingly the treatment of Palestinian prisoners by Israelis, in many ways hold a kind of mirror to the conflict as a whole.

The two most recent prisoner cases that attracted broad local, regional and international attention involved the Israeli Gilad Shalit and the Palestinian Khader Adnan. Shalit, an abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier, was held incommunicado for more than five years by Hamas and affiliated organizations in the Gaza Strip. He was finally released last autumn in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Adnan, an Islamic Jihad activist, has been held by Israel under administrative detention for several months. He went on a prolonged hunger strike that led, just last week, to Israeli agreement to shorten his jail term and release him in April.

These two affairs illustrate everything that is problematic or downright wrong in each side's treatment of prisoners from the other.

Hamas' incarceration of Shalit violated every accepted rule of treatment of prisoners-of-war, political prisoners, or any other kind of prisoners: no Red Cross visits, virtually no communication, poor nourishment and little health care. On other occasions, dead Israelis in Hizballah hands have been represented in a macabre fashion as live prisoners for the purpose of bargaining. There is nothing new here; this is how Israeli prisoners have been treated for decades by non-state actors who call for its destruction, and at times by Arab state neighbors as well, such as Syria in the 1950s and 1960s.

This treatment is inexcusable in any context. Yet it is relevant to inquire why Hamas and before it Hizballah went to such extremes to abduct and hold Israelis, alive and dead. The answer lies at least partially in Israel's treatment of Palestinian and other prisoners held on terrorist charges. For the most part due process is observed, conditions of incarceration are reasonable, Red Cross supervision is honored and under some circumstances family visits are permitted. But the length of sentences is draconian.

Hamas and Hizballah know that their combatants who have killed Israelis or been involved in attacks on Israelis will never get out of jail unless they are ransomed. If their families want to see them home again, virtually the only way is a prisoner exchange.

Were Israel to treat all terrorists equally, it might be harder to challenge this approach. But that is not the case. A Hamas terrorist who murders seven Israelis will routinely be sentenced to seven life sentences. An Israeli who kills seven Palestinians, in cold blood and unprovoked, can expect to be released at some point, and in the meantime will enjoy far more humane conditions of incarceration. Such is the case of Ami Popper, who murdered seven Palestinian day laborers in 1990. His life sentences have been commuted to 40 years, and more appeals for clemency are pending. (Minister of Justice Yaakov Neeman was recently recorded instructing right-wing activists how to draft appeals for offenders like Popper.) He has married while in jail and enjoys conjugal visits. He gets weekend furloughs.

If Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails enjoyed conditions anywhere proximate to Popper's, we might experience fewer brutal attempts to abduct Israelis, alive or dead, in order to ransom the Palestinians.

One reason for the disparity is legal: Palestinians are generally tried under the military laws prevailing in the West Bank, whereas Israelis are tried under Israeli civil law. But that military sentences can be commuted in a flash is illustrated whenever hundreds of prisoners have to be released in exchange for a single Israeli like Shalit.

The record shows that a worrisome percentage of Palestinian terrorists released in prisoner exchanges return to terrorism and kill more Israelis. Several Islamic Jihad activists released by Israel in the Shalit exchange have already reportedly reverted to terrorism. The Shalit case has prompted a degree of soul-searching in Israel regarding the need to drive a far harder bargain in exchange for the next abducted Israeli. The authorities should look not only at the exchange negotiation process, but at the jail sentences and conditions meted out to Palestinians that encourage abductions.

This brings us to the Adnan case, which put the spotlight on administrative detention--incarceration without due process and without trial. Adnan is an activist in Islamic Jihad, an organization that calls for Israel's total destruction and carries out acts of terror to that end. He was held under statutes inherited from the British mandate and employed by the British not too long ago against the Irish Republican Army and by the United States to this day in Guantanamo.

That the Israeli system incarcerated him without due process reflects the nature of the intelligence information against him--ostensibly so sensitive that it cannot be presented to his lawyers in a trial. That Adnan seemingly "broke" the system by hunger-striking for more than two months is a tribute to his character and fortitude. But whether the resultant stalemate will change anything is doubtful, as long as Israel faces the sort of terrorism preached by Islamic Jihad.-Published 1/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.net family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Military courts are a weapon
an interview with  Amal Bakry

BI: What is the current legal framework for arbitrary and political arrests in Egypt?

Bakry: The "state of emergency" grants a wide scope for the authorities to act as they please. A few years ago they changed the military justice law to determine when to transfer civilians to military courts and who military rulings are to be applied to. [This allows for] the prosecution of anyone, of any prisoner of conscience or opponent of the regime. It allows [the authorities] to act freely and makes criticism extremely difficult. They used this against the Muslim Brotherhood; in 2005 they arrested a huge number of Muslim Brotherhood members and turned them over to military trials. Turning civilians over to military courts is a weapon used by the regime to take down its opponents.

Since the revolution, this has been applied on a larger scale. About 3,000 civilians were put to military trial during [former President Hosni] Mubarak's rule. Since the army [was deployed] on January 28, 2011 and until today, there have been 15,000 military court cases. Typically, each case involves a large number of people: for example, the activists camping out in Tahrir Square who were arrested on March 9, 2011 and put on military trial consisted of about 200 people, and they were split into groups of about 30 for each trial. So when we say there have been 15,000 military cases, that doesn't mean 15,000 civilians--it could be double that.

In September, the [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] admitted in a press conference that there had been 12,000 military cases since the revolution, but said that only 6,000 civilians had been detained. The problem is that there's no transparency, so we don't know the truth.

BI: Can you describe the conditions under which the arrests, detentions, and trials are taking place?

Bakry: When the army [deployed], it began to arrest people randomly--anyone leaving Tahrir Square to get food might get arrested or someone on the street after curfew. We keep discovering bizarre cases, for example someone in his shop was asked by the military police "Are you so-and-so?" When he said no, they said, "Come with us so we can confirm that." They took him and put him through a military trial and charged him with stealing someone's identity.

The blogger Michael Nabil was taken from his home and spent about 10 months in prison because of his blog, "The people and the army are not one". He was tried without a lawyer or his family. We were outside the military court and they told us to go home because the trial was being delayed, and after we left they tried him at night and sentenced him to three years in prison.

There are cases that are laughable. There's no particular logic to it--this is a message to the people that there's no freedom like you asked for.

The trials are incredibly hasty. For example, if you're arrested today, within two days you're sentenced to five or 10 years. [Nineteen-year-old] Muhammad Ishaq was sentenced to 25 years. He'd just had surgery and was in bed at home and they took him and gave him a life sentence. I think he's epileptic, too. He was charged with possession of a molotov [cocktail] or other weapon, as is the case with most people sentenced under false charges.

Testimonies have shown that numerous violations take place during arrests and within prisons. Families have testified to spending weeks searching for relatives in hospitals and here and there until finally discovering they were at such-and-such military prison. Then, when they arrived, they didn't recognize their relatives for all the beating and abuse [the detainee] had been subjected to.

BI: Can you comment on the infamous virginity checks?

Bakry: The virginity checks took place during the breakup of the March 9 demonstration [last year]. A group of seven women were told to stand in two lines, the virgins in one and the non-virgins in another. Whoever claimed to be a virgin and turned out not to be one would be charged with prostitution. The women [who experienced this] were shocked and didn't speak about it for a long time, until one finally spoke up. Then Samira Ibrahim filed a court case, and she was recently joined by Rasha Abdel Rahman.

BI: A ruling on that was issued recently.

Bakry: A decision was issued that virginity checks would not be carried out in prisons or by the army. But the case is ongoing; those responsible must be punished. It will be a victory when the offenders are punished and detained as an example. Many decisions are issued that have no real ramifications on the ground.

BI: How do SCAF policies compare to those of the Mubarak era?

Bakry: Mubarak dealt with opponents sometimes gently and at other times harshly. At first SCAF had zero tolerance--the huge numbers of military trials meant they wanted to clamp down and make people not open their mouths. Now, with the parliament in place, SCAF is more backstage, with a buffer zone between it and the people. SCAF thought it could take Egypt back to how it was before January 25, but has discovered it's not that easy.

BI: How significant were last March's raids by the public on security headquarters and the uncovering of hidden detention cells?

Bakry: Activists and citizens entered state security headquarters, but they [the security forces] were the ones who opened [the headquarters]. This was a game to make citizens believe they'd raided state security headquarters and that everything had changed and they shouldn't be afraid. But the same officers are still there and, shortly after the revolution, activists started to be snatched off the streets again. All that happened is that the officers were given a vacation and then state security went back to business under its new name of "national security". The revolution hasn't taken power; an extension of Mubarak's regime has taken power.

BI: How do the military trials of civilians compare to the political trials taking place?

Bakry: The people see [Mubarak's trial] as a theatrical farce, and this has revealed SCAF's true colors. SCAF hasn't protected the revolution and there's been no real change. No officers have been sentenced; they've all been declared innocent. Every day an officer is declared innocent, and this is preparation for declaring Mubarak innocent. If no one used violence against the people, then who did Mubarak give orders to?-Published 1/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Amal Bakry is a member of the Egyptian activist group No Military Trials for Civilians.

Continuity in Egypt
an interview with  Saad Eddin Ibrahim

BI: You spent three years in prison under the Mubarak regime. How would you compare the issue of incarceration and scope of arrest and imprisonment in Egypt for alleged offenses against the state under the Mubarak regime and the current, military regime?

Ibrahim: So far there is a great deal of continuity.

BI: Does this apply to the current trial of several dozen Americans and other foreigners and Egyptians for so-called illegal non-governmental organizations activity? Is this the same accusation you were convicted of?

Ibrahim: This is the same accusation. This is [the] continuity [I'm referring to]. [The regime] wants to distract public opinion from its failures. The military officers do the same thing now as the Mubarak regime then.

BI: Can you assess whether this will be true once there are a new parliament, president and constitution?

Ibrahim: So far, [the Muslim Brothers] keep saying they will respect the peace treaty with Israel and in their foreign policy they want to reach out and normalize relations with Iran, as with the West.

BI: And on domestic policy?

Ibrahim: On domestic policy and the rule of law, so far they say the same thing, that they will respect all human rights including women's rights, and not impose any restrictions on lifestyle. They are taking their cue from Turkey, which is permissive of all lifestyles, not from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

But the concern of Egyptians now is not with lifestyle or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or Muslim Brotherhood, but with [personal] security. There have been nasty incidents on the highways and elsewhere.

BI: Does the public feel that the need for security justifies violating human rights?

Ibrahim: The public hasn't reached the point where this justifies violation of human rights. But the police lost control after the revolution. They want the public to let them have the same kind of freewheeling right to conduct security as before the revolution. The police say the current situation is undermining their authority and ability to control.

BI: Returning to issues of imprisonment, is it true that the sons of deposed president Hosni Mubarak now occupy your old prison cell? Do you see any symbolism here?

Ibrahim: Yes, the same cell bloc as I was in. It is in a corner, where it is more convenient to put the Mubarak sons to keep them safe. It's more convenient for security.-Published 1/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo.

Seeking a new horizon for Palestinian prisoners
 Shawqi Issa

The thorny issue of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has numerous angles. First, it is a humanitarian cause. Many of the prisoners have spent decades, some more than 30 years in jail, with all the resulting social and economic ramifications for Palestinian society as a whole. Additionally, Palestinian leaders bear the moral responsibility for the fact that these activists have remained behind bars for periods far longer than logically acceptable. A full 121 of them have languished in prison since before the 1993 signing of the Oslo agreements with Israel.

But it is the legal aspect that ultimately decides the fate of the prisoners. Israel continues to reject the application of international law, particularly the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions that relate to prisoners, and considers Palestinian detainees subject to the regulations of the Israeli military, which is implemented by officers and settlers that are themselves criminals of war under international law. Israel's military does not respect human rights or abide by international standards for a fair trial but rather exists only to secure Israel's occupation of the occupied territories in order to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.

According to Israeli official statistics from January 31, 2012, there are 4,357 detainees (162 of which are children). Of these detainees, 309 are in arbitrary detention (called "administrative detention" by the Israeli authorities), that are held without any judicial proceedings. The number of prisoners that have been charged and sentenced is 3,215, among them 1,987 serving out sentences longer than 20 years.

The numbers in Israeli prisons continue to rise. According to Palestinian researcher and expert on prisoner issues Abdul-Nasser Ferwana, by February 26 the number of Palestinian prisoners was 4,600. The highest number of prisoners held at any single given month since the start of Israel's occupation in 1967, he found, was during the first intifada, when approximately 12,500 Palestinians were held in Israeli jails. Monthly averages during the second intifada came close to this figure as well, at their peak.

This picture is bleak and the absence of a strategy concerning the prisoners is leading a search for new horizons. This has resulted in an initiative over the last two years pursued by civil society organizations, the Ministry of Detainee and ex-Detainee Affairs and the Palestinian leadership to internationalize the issue of the prisoners. This initiative is continuing through specialized committees made up of legal professionals, and includes a plan to go to the International Court of Justice in order to seek a decision on Palestinian prisoners' legal status and the laws applicable to them. We believe that some of the prisoners fit the definition of "prisoners of war" and must be treated according to the Third Geneva Convention, while the rest fall under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel, which is bound under all domestic and international laws to meet prisoners' daily needs, stopped fulfilling many of its responsibilities after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, which began to bear most of these costs. For example, according to the ministry, the PNA pays an average of NIS 16 million (about $4.3 million) annually on food and sustenance, depending on the number of prisoners, and about NIS 3.5 million (nearly $1 million) for clothing allowances, as well as any costs incurred for treatment, etc. Of course, these amounts multiplied when the number of detainees rose in previous years. The International Committee of the Red Cross used to provide the detainees with Arabic newspapers and magazines until the beginning of this year when it stopped because it no longer had funds. In recent years, occupation authorities even devised new strategies for the PNA to pay the costs of jailers, military judges, and the staff of the military prosecutor. The Israeli authorities have begun to impose heavy fines on prisoners who break prison rules, using the fines to pay for the prison apparatus. These fines have reached figures as high as NIS 17 million ($4.6 million) per year and are paid by the PNA, falling more recently with the number of detainees to about NIS 10 million ($2.7 million) a year. Of course, international law prohibits Israel from using this money for these purposes.

I think we should stop and think about this situation that allows Israel to shirk its responsibilities and even to profit from holding prisoners. When Israel was responsible for all of the prisoners' expenses, from 1967 until the first intifada, the number of Palestinian prisoners did not exceed 3,000. Now the occupation has become heavily subsidized for Israel with the establishment of the PNA and the provision of funds through European and other donors.

Our prisoners also are without basic protections. Ferwana quotes from Israeli sources within the Israeli Ministry of Health, stating that there has been a 15 percent increase in the number of permits given by the Israeli Ministry of Health to conduct clinical trials of drugs on Palestinian prisoners. Member of Knesset Dalia Itzik disclosed that in 1997, more than 1,000 permits were granted by Israel's Ministry of Health to test drugs on Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli authorities continue to "detain" the corpses of prisoners who die in captivity until their sentence is fulfilled. Prisoners have gone on hunger strike to protest their arbitrary detention, highlighted by Khader Adnan, who went on hunger strike for 66 days, and Hana Shalabi, who has been on hunger strike since mid-February to protest her re-detention after she was released last year in an exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Finally, in a move that has received broad public support, Palestinian administrative detainees have decided to boycott the kangaroo court that approves their imprisonment without charge.

All of these issues should be weighed in producing a comprehensive and unified strategy, especially in light of changes in the Arab states and the possibility for more popular movement now that it seems clear that the Arab peoples are driven to achieve results.-Published 1/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Shawqi Issa is director of Ensan Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Bethlehem and a former prisoner.

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