(Jerusalem) – Israel should immediately release the journalist Samer Allawi or charge him with a criminal offense, Human Rights Watch said today. The Israeli military arrested Allawi, a Palestinian who heads Al Jazeera’s office in Afghanistan, on August 9, 2011, as he tried to leave the West Bank after visiting his family. Military judges have repeatedly extended Allawi’s detention “for purposes of questioning” on the basis of confidential evidence that he could not see or challenge, and denied him access to his lawyer for 12 days.
Allawi said that Israeli interrogators threatened to physically harm and detain him without charge for months unless he confessed, according to his lawyer. He has not confessed, however, and denies the military prosecution’s allegations that he is a member or supporter of Hamas.
“Israel cannot justify violating Samer Allawi’s basic rights to due process, no matter what officials think he may have done,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “By detaining him for six weeks without charge and refusing to let him challenge the basis for his arrest, Israel is acting as though the principle of innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply to Allawi.”
Allawi, 45, was born in the town of Sebastia, near Nablus in the northern West Bank. Allawi heads Al Jazeera’s television news bureau in Kabul and previously worked for Nile TV and Al Arabiyya. He travels between Pakistan, where he is based with his wife and children, who are also Palestinian, and Afghanistan. He has no criminal record, according to his lawyer and Al Jazeera. His brother, Mus’ab, told Human Rights Watch that Allawi is not politically active, and had been living in Pakistan since 1984.
In July, Allawi and his family entered the West Bank to visit relatives in Sebastia. On August 9, he tried to travel to Jordan in order to return to his work in Afghanistan. Israeli border officials detained him at the Allenby Bridge crossing. Allawi’s wife, Suheir Subhi Issa Ghanaym, and their six children had planned to meet him in Pakistan in September, but have remained in the West Bank due to his detention.
Ghanaym told Human Rights Watch that she and her children have not been able to visit Allawi in prison. “We have applied for permits to visit him many times but nothing has happened,” said Ghanaym, who has been married to Allawi for 13 years. “We are only able to see him when he’s in the military court, but then we are not allowed to touch him or to speak to him. I enrolled my children in schools here, but they can’t focus or study because they’re thinking about him all the time and they’re not used to living in a new place.”
Authorities first presented Allawi before a military judge at Kishon prison on August 16. On August 17, another judge extended Allawi’s detention for seven days on suspicion of “membership in an enemy organization” – Hamas – and the general offense of “involvement in activity that threatens the security of the Area [the West Bank].” The prosecution added on September 7 that it also suspected Allawi of “providing services to an enemy organization.”
Allawi’s lawyer, Salim Wakeem, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli military judges had extended his client’s detention six times on the basis of confidential material submitted by the prosecutor. Under Israeli law, a detainee does not have the right to inspect material submitted prior to a criminal indictment. At the latest hearing on September 20, a judge extended Allawi’s detention by seven more days.
Allawi told Wakeem that on August 27, “he was questioned for about 20 hours with his hands tied behind his back, and threatened that if he did not confess he could be jailed for six months or more without charge, under administrative detention.”
Allawi’s family told Human Rights Watch that he has diabetes and that he had complained of pain from ankle-chains and handcuffs.
Wakeem was initially able to meet Allawi in prison several times until August 31, when a military judge issued a decision banning him from meeting his client, “for the purposes of the investigation.” The court renewed the ban for five more days on September 7. Wakeem said the military judiciary did not allow him to attend these hearings where the ban was ordered and renewed.
“I was allowed to speak in the hearing against extending his detention, but I had to leave when they decided to bar him from meeting me,” Wakeem said. Wakeem appealed the decision to bar him from meeting his client, but the period of the ban expired before the military appeals court decided on the appeal.
The detention-extension hearings were held at Kishon and Salem prisons, where Allawi has been detained. During the 12 days that he was banned from meeting his lawyer, Israeli authorities transferred Allawi to the Megiddo prison. The Kishon and Megiddo prisons are located in northern Israel, not the West Bank. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits Israel from trying or detaining Palestinians outside of the occupied Palestinian territories (articles 66, 76), and provides that the accused “shall have the right to be assisted by a qualified advocate or counsel of their own choice, who shall be able to visit them freely” (article 72).
According to Wakeem,
My client says he was asked about what he was doing in the late 1980s when he was in Pakistan, whether he was a member of organizations supported by the Saudis to fight the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. They claimed that after that, he met people from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and the West Bank. They asked who had visited him from the West Bank.
Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in the West Bank, Walid al-Omari, said on August 17 that Israeli investigators had taken Allawi’s passwords for his personal email account and for Al-Jazeera’s I-News computer program, according to news reports.
Israel is a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which obliges states to promptly inform anyone who has been arrested of any charges against them and to try or release them within a reasonable time and without undue delay. A defendant has the right to reasonable facilities for the preparation of his defense and to see the evidence against him. Under its human rights obligations, Israel should not as a general rule detain persons awaiting trial.