Mohammed Othman Held without Charge for 72 Days
December 4, 2009
"The only reasonable conclusion is that Othman is being punished for his peaceful advocacy...The authorities interrogated him for months, then ordered him held some more, but they won't say why they are holding him and haven't accused him of any crime."
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(Jerusalem) - The Israeli military appeals court should end the administrative detention of Mohammed Othman, a West Bank rights activist, and order his release, Human Rights Watch said today.

Israeli authorities have detained Othman without charge for more than two months on what appear to be politically motivated grounds. On the basis of secret evidence that Othman and his lawyers were not allowed to see, a military court confirmed a military order that consigned Othman to three months administrative detention without charging him with any crime. Othman has no criminal record and, to the knowledge of Human Rights Watch, has never advocated or participated in violence. His detention period, which may be renewed, ends on December 22.

"The only reasonable conclusion is that Othman is being punished for his peaceful advocacy," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities interrogated him for months, then ordered him held some more, but they won't say why they are holding him and haven't accused him of any crime."

Israeli authorities detained Othman, an activist with the "Stop the Wall" campaign, a nonviolent protest movement, on September 22, 2009, as he returned to the West Bank from a trip to Norway, where he spoke about the separation barrier that Israel has constructed in the occupied territory. The barrier was ostensibly built to protect against suicide bombers, but it is not being built along the 1967 border. Instead, 87 percent of the barrier's route lies inside the West Bank, unlawfully separating residents from their lands, restricting their movement, and effectively annexing occupied lands to unlawful Israeli settlements.

On November 23, after Othman had been detained for 61 days "for the purpose of interrogation," Colonel Ron Weisel, an Israeli military commander of the West Bank, ordered him held for three months of administrative detention on the grounds that he was a threat to the "security of the area." The military court of administrative detainees, located in the Israeli military base of Ofer, near Ramallah in the West Bank, upheld the order on November 25 and counted the time that Othman had already been detained toward his detention.

Othman's administrative detention order came one day after a military court ordered his release. Othman was originally detained under Israeli military orders authorizing "interrogative detention." According to his lawyers at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners' rights organization, on November 22 the Military Court of Appeals ordered Othman's release on bail on the grounds that no progress had been made in his interrogation, no other evidence against him had been produced, and no charges had been laid against him. However, the court also remanded Othman to detention for 24 hours and allowed the military prosecutor to issue an administrative detention order during that time. Weisel issued Othman's administrative detention the next day.

Israeli authorities have violated Othman's rights in detention. Mahmoud Hassan, a lawyer at Addameer who represents Othman, told Human Rights Watch that on November 2 Israeli authorities transferred Othman from the West Bank to a prison in Be'er Sheva, Israel, without informing his family or his lawyers, and barred his lawyers from seeing him for 15 days. "We learned about it only two days later from staff at the Ofer jail, where we tried to visit him," Hassan said. Othman was not allowed to attend two subsequent hearings on his case, Hassan said, during which time Othman was threatened with administrative detention. Israeli military orders authorize barring outside access to detainees "for the purposes of the interrogation."

International standards governing the treatment of all persons detained require prompt notification of a detainee's family, both after the person is detained and after a transfer to another place of detention. In addition, all detainees have the right to be visited by legal counsel, and any restriction on that right can only be in "exceptional circumstances, set out in law."

The administrative detention order saying that Othman "is a risk to the security of the area," cites military order 1591 from 2007. Under that order, the military commander of the West Bank may detain an individual for up to six months and renew the detention indefinitely. A military judge must review the commander's detention order, but the judge does so in a closed hearing, without witnesses, based on secret information that the detainee and his attorney cannot see. The defendant may appeal the military judge's decision to the military court of appeal for administrative detainees, which is also located in the Ofer military base.

According to Jamal Juma'a, a coordinator for the "Stop the Wall" campaign, an Israeli soldier had detained Othman at a checkpoint during the summer and threatened him because of his advocacy against the wall. Juma'a said that before joining the "Stop the Wall" campaign, Othman worked with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a World Council of Churches program to accompany Palestinian non-violent activists.

"As Othman's case makes clear, Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remain at the mercy of Israeli military courts, which have the power to detain them indefinitely, without charge, on the basis of secret evidence they can't challenge," said Whitson.

As of November 9, Israel held more than 322 Palestinians in administrative detention, 132 of them for more than a year, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. According to the most recent available official statistics on the cases that actually go to trial in Israeli military courts, obtained by Yesh Din, another Israeli human rights organization, in 2006 Israeli military courts found defendants not guilty in only 23 (or 0.29 percent) of 9,123 trials.

Although international human rights law permits some limited use of administrative detention in emergency situations, the authorities are required to follow basic rules for detention, including a fair hearing at which the detainee can challenge the reasons for his or her detention. As the occupying power in the West Bank, Israel is also bound by the rules governing occupation, which require it to use administrative detention only for imperative reasons of security.