Ahmad Sabri, a 17-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank town of Qalqilya, has been incarcerated in Israel’s Megiddo Prison since March 2019. Since the coronavirus crisis began earlier this year, Sabri, a “security prisoner,” has been subjected to restrictions that bar him from making phone calls or receiving visits from lawyers and family members.
Last October, Sabri petitioned the Nazareth District Court asking that he be allowed to make phone calls to his family, with the same rights as criminal prisoners. But the court rejected the petition, claiming that the “temporary regulations” enacted due to the pandemic already allow minors to call their families under supervision.
The court added that the Israel Prison Service (IPS) is preparing to conduct a pilot program that allows minors to make phone calls in prisons different from the one Sabri is incarcerated in. That program was initiated in response to a hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners last year, which compelled the IPS to install public phones in security wings and allow up to three phone calls for each prisoner per week, for a maximum of 15 minutes.
Palestinian security prisoners in Israel, and minors in particular, are suffering from deteriorating conditions as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Without phone calls and visits, these prisoners have been cut off from the world for months — with no end in sight. As of August, there were 140 Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons, according to the rights group Addameer.
Sabri was sentenced to 20 months in prison as part of a plea bargain. He was convicted of unsuccessfully attempting to make an improvised explosive; of recruiting others to “print flags and headbands” for Hamas; and of conspiring to place a bomb near the separation fence, though he did not end up making an explosive.
No exceptions for minors
A coalition of Israeli human rights groups has now taken up Sabri’s case, filing a Supreme Court petition in April to allow Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons to remain in contact with their families. Following the petition, the IPS permitted minors to call their families once every two weeks, for about 10 minutes.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear the petition in November, a few days after Sabri turns 18. HaMoked, one of the organizations representing Sabri, fears that the petition will be dismissed over the fact that he will no longer be a minor by the time it comes to court.
The state’s response to the petition in August indicated that although the temporary orders suspending family prison visits had not been renewed, minors were still being restricted to brief, fortnightly phone calls.
A recent freedom of information request filed by Parents Against Child Detention, an Israeli rights group, revealed that between 2017 and 2019, Israel arrested on average 5,056 Palestinian aged 12 to 18 years old in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem each year, 1,649 of whom were arrested in the wider West Bank. Around 30 of those arrested on average during the three years were aged 12 to 13 years old.
According to Sabri’s petition, the prison ordinance that bars security prisoners from making phone calls states that exceptions can be made in some circumstances. But these exceptions are only ever made for Jewish security prisoners, the petition continued, because doing so requires a positive opinion from security officials — which “is given sparingly, if at all.”
HaMoked had initially submitted a broader petition to the Supreme Court to ensure access to phone calls for all Palestinian prisoners, both adults and minors, but the court told them to submit an individual petition to a district court instead.
In response to that previous filing, the state claimed that the danger posed by minors is equal to that of adults in prison, and therefore exceptions for phone calls could not be made in their case. The court also ordered the input of the Shin Bet, which is due to be provided soon, over whether allowing phone calls for Palestinian security prisoners really does endanger national security.
‘Who is frightened of my son speaking with his mother?’
Nadia Daqqa, an attorney at HaMoked, emphasizes that for a minor, an arrest is a “traumatic situation” that is exacerbated by the lack of contact with family. Warning that the policy could cause minors “long-term damage,” Daqqa explains that it is nonetheless difficult to pursue legal remedies “to the end” as petitioners are either released or turn 18 before the process can be concluded.
Sabri recognizes that the decision will likely come too late to benefit him, Daqqa says, but he wants to proceed all the same so that other prisoners will be able to contact their families.
HaMoked requested that the date of the hearing be moved up to Nov. 25, as Ahmed will turn 18 less than a week before. “It’s very difficult to challenge this injustice via an individual prisoner petition,” HaMoked told +972. “We hope that the court will ultimately decide to step up and end the distress of jailed Palestinian minors.”
The state’s response to the Supreme Court petition, which mentioned previous rulings on the matter, claimed that security prisoners were barred from having telephone calls due to the fact that national security concerns cancelled out the individual liberties of “this unique group of prisoners.” The response further noted that, with the exception of the period from March to June, Sabri’s family had usually visited him every fortnight.
“Who is frightened of [my son] speaking with his mother and telling her how he’s doing?” Sabri’s father, Issa, says over the phone from his home in Qalqilya. “It’s a punitive measure, in order to cut off prisoners from their families, and in order to mentally pressure minors.”
Issa confirms that his son has been able to make a 10-minute phone call every two weeks (“Have those conversations damaged national security?” he asks), but prior to that policy in April, he was completely cut off. “We were out of touch for months. Despite international laws [on these issues], they simply wouldn’t allow him to speak to his family.”
In Issa’s view, Israel’s policy on security prisoners harms minors above all. “Israel needs to handle its prisoners according to international laws and agreements, but the racist [Benjamin] Netanyahu government doesn’t do so,” he says. “They treat Palestinian and Israeli prisoners differently.”
Breaking children’s spirit
A number of mental health professionals working in conjunction with Parents Against Child Detention have noted in their request to court for amicus curiae that Sabri’s request is “not a standalone problem, but rather is a sweeping and continuous refusal [by the state] that gravely harms all minors that the state has deemed security prisoners and who are incarcerated in Israeli jails.”
An additional document authored by those experts notes that Sabri, like many other detained minors, was arrested in the dead of night by soldiers who raided his home, “destroyed property… and intimidated his young brothers.” Moreover, the document states, Sabri was subjected to “violence and abandonment from the moment of his arrest until his arrival at Megiddo Prison — including a nine-day Shin Bet interrogation — all while being cut off from the outside world without any way of contacting his family.”
The process of arrest, interrogation, and incarceration, alongside lost contact with family, is liable to “break the spirits” of these Palestinian minors, wrote the experts, adding that while phone calls “will not cure the harm and trauma a child experiences during arrest and interrogation, it can reduce their mental and emotional burden.”
(Source: 972 magazine)