(Jerusalem) - An Israeli military court's conviction of Abdullah Abu Rahme, an advocate of nonviolent protests against Israel's de facto confiscation of land from the West Bank village of Bil'in, raises grave due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 24, 2010, Abu Rahme, who has been detained for more than eight months, was convicted on charges of organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations and inciting protestors to damage the separation barrier, throw stones at Israeli soldiers, and participate in violent protests.
The convictions were based on allegations that did not specify any particular incidents of wrongdoing and on statements by children who retracted them in court, alleging they were coerced, and who did not understand Hebrew, the language in which Israeli military interrogators prepared the statements they signed. Abu Rahme, a 39-year-old schoolteacher, helped organize protests against the route of the Israeli separation barrier that has cut off Bil'in villagers' access to more than 50 percent of their agricultural lands, on which an Israeli settlement is being built. He remains in custody pending sentencing, and could face 20 years in prison.
"Israel's conviction of Abu Rahme for protesting the unlawful confiscation of his village's land is the unjust result of an unfair trial," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Israeli authorities are effectively banning peaceful expression of political speech by convicting supporters of nonviolent resistance."
Human Rights Watch reported in March that Israel has detained dozens of Palestinians who advocate nonviolent protests against the separation barrier and charged them based on questionable evidence, including allegedly coerced confessions from minors.
Israeli soldiers arrested Abu Rahme on December 10 at 2 a.m., when seven military jeeps surrounded his home in Ramallah, where he had resided for two years. An Israeli military court indicted Abu Rahme on December 21 on charges of incitement, stone throwing, and illegal possession of weapons. The arms possession charge was based on an art exhibit, in the shape of a peace sign, that Abu Rahme constructed out of used M16 bullet cartridges and tear gas canisters that the Israeli army had used to quell protests in Bil'in. Abu Rahme was ultimately acquitted of this charge. On January 18, military prosecutors added the charge of organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations to the indictment. Because Abu Rahme's interrogation had already ended, he was never questioned about this charge.
Demonstrations against the separation barrier often turn violent, with Palestinian youths throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. Violence at demonstrations may result in the arrest of those who participate in or incite violence, but it does not justify the arrest of activists who have simply called for or supported peaceful protests against the wall, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law, authorities can prosecute organizers of demonstrations or other assemblies only if evidence exists that the organizers of the assembly are themselves directly responsible for violence or incitement to violence. The authorities have a duty to ensure the protection of the right to assembly even if a demonstration leads to violence by others.
The indictment states that from August 2005 to June 2009, Abu Rahme was a member of a popular committee that, on Fridays, led villagers from Bil'in "in mass marches meant to disturb order" by attempting to damage the separation barrier and by "instructing" youth from the village to "throw stones at the [Israeli] security forces."
"The defendant also prepared bottles and balloons filled with chicken feces, which the protestors then threw at the security forces," the indictment stated.
Abu Rahme's conviction on both the incitement and the organizing and participating in illegal demonstration charges raises serious due process concerns.
Abu Rahme was convicted of offenses that the prosecution alleged he committed at various, unspecified times over the course of four years - from 2005 to 2009 - rather than on any particular dates, which made it impossible for the defendant to provide an adequate defense for his actions. The prosecution failed to specify when supposed offenses took place and what the form the offenses took, and the interrogators did not ask specific questions regarding the defendant's role in the alleged incitement and organization of protests. The verdict acknowledged that "the witnesses' interrogations should have been more comprehensive and exhaustive and should have gone to more details regarding the offenses."
The only evidence that Abu Rahme incited others to throw stones was a statement by one 16-year-old child to this effect, and by another 16-year-old that Abu Rahme prepared balloons filled with chicken feces for protestors to throw at soldiers. Both youths later retracted their statements, saying that they were threatened and beaten by their interrogators. The interrogators denied threatening and abusing them in detention, and the court accepted the interrogators' account rather than the boys'. However, the state did not contest that the interrogations of both youths occurred in highly threatening circumstances. They were interrogated the morning after being arrested by the Israeli military during raids on their homes, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., and having been accused of throwing stones.
The state did not contest that the children's parents or guardians were not present during their interrogations, in violation of an Israeli court ruling on the issue. The boys were denied access to lawyers until after their interrogations. Neither youth could read Hebrew, the language in which the statements they signed were written. The interrogating officers admitted that they had received no training in questioning minors, that the minors did not read Hebrew, and that they had neglected to ask the witnesses many relevant and specific questions concerning the charges brought against the defendant.
One other child witness whose statements the court also admitted as evidence claimed only that Abu Rahme was a member of the Bil'in popular committee and that he participated in the protests.
All the child witnesses claimed to have been abused during interrogation. H. Y., 16, claimed in court that the soldiers who arrested him beat him and that from the time he was arrested until the next day when his interrogation began, he was left handcuffed and blindfolded on the ground, without food. The children stated in court that their signed statements incriminating Abu Rahme were prepared by their interrogators in Hebrew, a language they could not read. A.B., a fourth witness who was not a minor, testified that he signed his "confession" after his interrogator threatened to beat him and to put him in solitary confinement. K.H., 16, said he signed his confession after the interrogating officer yelled at him, threatened to hurt his parents, and hit him.
The military court declared the children to be "hostile witnesses" for contradicting the statements they had signed during their investigation, and accepted their statements as evidence. The verdict states that there was no need to take into account the alleged "circumstances of the arrest," because the youths did not mention those circumstances in the trial or during their interrogation, and did not complain that their judgment had been "impeded." The verdict further argued that the children's testimony during the trial was not credible, noting that two of them "smiled" during the trial and that three had lied and given "dishonest testimonies." For example, one witness stated there was no "popular committee" in Bil'in, but later said the "committee members" were angry at him for throwing stones. By contrast, the verdict found that the witnesses' statements to the police had an "inner logic," without acknowledging that these statements were prepared by an Israeli security official in a language the witnesses could not read, and that they signed these statements in a coercive atmosphere after having been arrested in the middle of the night and interrogated in violation of Israeli law.
The court chose to disregard statements by character witnesses indicating that Abu Rahme has long been committed to nonviolent protest. Dov Khenin, a member of the Israeli parliament, and Dr. Gershon Baskin, founder and director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, testified on the defendant's behalf as character witnesses. An Israeli protester, Jonathan Pollack, acknowledged Palestinian youths often have thrown stones but told Human Rights Watch that he had attended "dozens" of protests with Abu Rahme and had never seen him incite others to violence.
On December 10, 2008, one year before Abu Rahme's arrest, he received the Carl Von Ossietzky Medal for Outstanding Service in the Realization of Basic Human Rights, awarded by the International League for Human Rights in Berlin. European Union (EU) High Representative Catherine Ashton said in August 2010 that the EU considered Abu Rahme to be "a Human Rights Defender committed to nonviolent protest."
Abu Rahme was convicted of incitement to throw stones and of organizing illegal protests, based on article 7(a) of Israeli military order 101 of 1967, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years and prohibits "attempting, whether verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area [of the West Bank] in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order." Abu Rahme was also convicted of organizing and participating in illegal protests under the same military order (articles 1, 3, and 10), which requires obtaining a permit for any gathering of 10 people or more listening to a speech "that can be interpreted as political," or for any 10 people or more walking together for a purpose "that can be viewed as political." Persons who call for or "support" such gatherings are subject to the same penalties. The civil law applied within Israel, by contrast, requires a permit only for "political" gatherings of more than 50 people.
Another Bil'in resident, Adeeb Abu Rahme, was the first person to be charged by Israeli military prosecutors with organizing illegal demonstrations and with incitement since the first Palestinian intifada, which ended in 1993, according to Abdullah Abu Rahme's lawyer, Gaby Lasky, and to the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, of which Abdullah Abu Rahme is a leader. The same charges have been used against four members of Bil'in's popular committee, including Abdullah and Adeeb Abu Rahme, and these represent the first such charges in close to 20 years. Abdullah Abu Rahme's conviction and the subsequent use of these offenses to charge other protestors raise concerns that Israeli authorities are applying the law selectively to stifle non-violent protest leaders.
Sentencing is scheduled for next month, after which Abu Rahme will appeal the conviction.
Israel's separation barrier - in some places a fence, in others an eight-meter-high concrete wall with guard towers - was ostensibly built to protect against suicide bombers. However, unlike a similar barrier between Israel and Gaza, it does not follow the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. Instead, 85 percent of the barrier's route lies inside the West Bank, separating Palestinian residents from their lands, restricting their movement, and in some places effectively confiscating occupied territory, all unlawful under international humanitarian law.
In Bil'in, the wall cuts villagers off from 50 percent of their land, putting the land on the "Israeli" side. The Israeli settlement of Mattityahu East is being built on the land to which the village no longer has access. In September 2007, after years of protests organized by Bil'in's Popular Committee, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the separation barrier in Bil'in must be rerouted to allow Bil'in villagers access to more of their land; the military only recently began survey work preliminary to rerouting the barrier.
The International Court of Justice ruled in a 2004 advisory opinion that the wall's route was illegal because its construction inside the West Bank was not justified by security concerns and contributed to violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law applicable to occupied territory by impeding Palestinians' freedom of movement, destroying property, and contributing to unlawful Israeli settlement practices. Israel's High Court of Justice has ruled that the wall must be rerouted in several places, including near Bil'in, because the harm caused to Palestinians was disproportionate, although the rulings would allow the barrier to remain inside the West Bank in these and other areas.
In contrast to its treatment of those protesting the route of the wall and other unlawful Israeli practices in the Occupied Territories with overwhelmingly peaceful means, in January 2010 the Israeli Knesset approved a wholesale amnesty to protesters involved in violent protests in connection with the 2005 evacuation of Jewish settlements from Gaza.
In 2005, Abu Rahme's brother, Rateb Abu Rahme, was shot in his foot and arrested for assaulting a border policeman and stone-throwing. During the trial, the court ruled, based on filmed evidence, that the border policeman had given false testimony. The Police Officers Investigations Unit then indicted the soldier, who confessed that he had fabricated the event; the border policeman was released after the conclusion of the investigation and transferred to a different unit within the Israel Defense Forces. Rateb Abu Rahme was acquitted.
Earlier this year, a military court decided not to investigate the death of a relative of Abdullah Abu Rahme, Bassem Abu Rahme, who was killed by a tear-gas canister during a Bil'in protest on April 17, 2009. In July 2010 the Military Advocate General agreed to investigate the event after the Abu Rahme family's lawyer threatened to petition the High Court of Justice and after receiving the findings of forensic experts, indicating that the canisters were fired directly at the protester in violation of the open-fire regulations.