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Palestinian demonstrators hold posters of Mohammad al-Halabi, a humanitarian worker in Gaza who has been detained by Israel since June 2016 without being convicted of a crime, during a protest in solidarity with al-Halabi, in Gaza City on August 7, 2016. © 2016 Reuters/Mohammed Salem

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities should immediately release Mohammad al-Halabi, a humanitarian worker from Gaza detained for nearly six years both before and during his trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The Israeli Supreme Court on February 17, 2022, renewed al-Halabi’s detention for 90 days: its 23rd such renewal.

Israeli prosecutors have charged al-Halabi, the 45-year-old head of the Gaza office of the Christian charity World Vision, with diverting tens of millions of dollars to Palestinian armed groups. But after more than 160 hearings, the court has yet to convict him. The trial has been marred by severe due process violations, including keeping secret much of the supposed evidence against him. Audits by donor governments and independent firms World Vision hired have found no wrongdoing.

“It makes a mockery of due process and the most basic fair trial notions to hold someone for nearly six years in pretrial detention based largely on secret evidence,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli Supreme Court’s 23 renewals of al-Halabi’s detention are yet another marker of how they all too often rubber stamp government policy that tramples on Palestinians’ rights.”

Because al-Halabi’s prolonged detention before and during proceedings so grossly violates the guarantees under international human rights law to a trial “within a reasonable time,” he should be immediately released, Human Rights Watch said.

Israeli authorities arrested al-Halabi, a father of five, in June 2016 at the Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel, as he was returning from a meeting at World Vision’s office in Jerusalem. Al-Halabi’s whereabouts were not revealed for weeks. In July 2016, Israeli authorities raided World Vision’s Jerusalem office.

On August 4, 2016, Israeli authorities announced that al-Halabi had confessed to diverting up to US$50 million to Hamas, some of it earmarked for militant activities. The allegations, which then-Prime Minister Netanyahu also referenced and made headlines globally, prompted major donors, including the Australian and German governments, to freeze their funding to World Vision’s projects in Gaza. They also prompted World Vision, which operates in 100 countries, to suspend its work in Gaza, which included education and health care programs, and cancel the contracts of 120 employees.

World Vision’s work in Gaza remains suspended. In addition, in late 2021, Israeli authorities designated six prominent Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist” and “illegal” based on supposed secret “evidence,” a move that permits closing their offices, seizing their assets, and jailing their staff and supporters.

Since 2016, World Vision and al-Halabi have denied the accusations against them. World Vision has said its ten-year Gaza budget was only US$22.5 million. A forensic audit of World Vision’s program in Gaza by the auditing firm Deloitte and the US law firm DLA Piper found no missing funds, no criminal activity, and no evidence that al-Halabi worked for Hamas, according to an August 2021 investigation in the Guardian. The Australian government also reviewed its funding for World Vision in Gaza, more than 25 percent of the organization’s budget there between 2014 and 2016, and found “nothing to suggest any diversion of government funds.”

Israeli prosecutors charged al-Halabi with multiple offenses, including membership in Hamas and its armed wing and support of their activities. Most seriously, they have charged al-Halabi, who is a Gaza resident, with “assistance to an enemy in war,” which falls under the “treason” article of Israel’s Penal Code of 1977 (articles 97-103). However, the Israel attorney general’s guidelines say that this charge “will not be used” against “a resident of the occupied territories … even if its legal basis may exist.”

After several closed-door hearings, al-Halabi first publicly appeared in January 2017 in the Beersheva District Court, where he alleged that he had been “tortured physically and emotionally.” His father, Khalil al-Halabi, told Human Rights Watch that he understood that Shin Bet interrogators forced al-Halabi to remain in painful stress positions, banged his head against the wall, deprived him of sleep and food, and denied him access to a lawyer during his first few weeks of detention. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that al-Halabi has been subjected to “cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment that may amount to torture.”

Prosecutors have offered plea deals, including deals that would have led to him being sentenced to time already served and released in return for admitting guilt on a lesser charge, according to al-Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna. Al-Halabi has maintained his innocence and refused.

The Australian public broadcaster ABC reported that during a March 2017 hearing, the district court judge encouraged al-Halabi to accept a plea bargain, warning that he had “little chance” of being found not guilty. ABC reported that the judge added: “You've read the numbers and the statistics. You know how these issues are handled.”

The journalist who reported on the story now works at Human Rights Watch.

Much of the supposed evidence against al-Halabi remains secret. The prosecution’s case reportedly relies heavily on a supposed confession that al-Halabi made to a fellow prisoner, who testified at al-Halabi’s trial behind closed doors. Hanna, al-Halabi’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the government interfered with his ability to represent his client, including not allowing him to see some of the government’s evidence or to cross-examine some witnesses and restricting what he can publicly say about the proceedings. Toward the end of the trial, the court mandated that Hanna have two guards present whenever he reviews trial transcripts and other court materials, and that he should use a government-issued laptop when preparing documents for court, such as questions for witnesses and his closing argument.

Al-Halabi’s trial concluded in July 2021, with final summations put forward to the district court shortly thereafter. Al-Halabi currently awaits a verdict.

Israeli law limits detaining a defendant before and during trial to nine months. After that period, the Supreme Court must authorize extensions for renewable periods of up to three months each. The Court justified its latest extension of al-Halabi’s detention by pointing to the severity of the charges, concern that al-Halabi would evade justice if released, and the forthcoming district court verdict.

The court did not evaluate the evidence in the case and it rejected the defense’s offer to provide private security, electronic monitoring, and round-the-clock surveillance if al-Halabi were released on bail. The court conceded that detaining al-Halabi this long constituted “extensive and ongoing” violation of his liberty, but suggested that the complexity of the facts necessitated such a lengthy proceeding and said that al-Halabi’s testimony and other defense evidence took up about half the trial sessions.

Hanna, al-Halabi’s lawyer, disputes the notion that the defense contributed to the delays. He noted that, while disputes over procedural issues, appeals, and Covid-19 restrictions slowed the proceedings, there were sometimes no trial sessions for two or three months along with summer and holiday recesses, and that hearings were adjourned quickly. He said that most of al-Halabi’s testimony was in fact the government’s cross-examination and that he sought to expedite proceedings, but that the court often denied those requests.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991, provides that everyone “shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release” (article 9) and to a “fair and public hearing” held “without undue delay” (article 14). Interpreting these provisions, the UN Human Rights Committee in 2014 has said that “detention in custody of persons awaiting shall be the exception rather than the rule” and that “extremely prolonged pretrial detention may also jeopardize the presumption of innocence.”

“Al-Halabi’s outrageously long prosecution combines many of the hallmarks of Israel’s rigged justice system against Palestinians, including mistreatment, secret evidence, and prolonged pre-trial detention to coerce pleas,” Shakir said. “The case underscores why other countries should push back when Israel hurls wild allegations against staff of civil society organizations that serve Palestinians.”

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