Palestinian prisoners’ lawyers strike against rights violations under the guise of war

Since the start of the war, new restrictions require 'humiliating' searches and limit the lawyers' movement on court grounds, while the prisoners have suffered violence and are sometimes not represented in hearings

The Ofer military court in 2022

Hagar Shezaf reports in Haaretz on 22 February 2024:

Some 20 lawyers representing Palestinian defendants in the Ofer military court announced a strike on Wednesday, citing a deterioration in the treatment of detainees and defense lawyers under the cover of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

The lawyers told Haaretz that since the war began, many detainees are not represented in legal proceedings and have been subjected to physical violence on their way to trial. The lawyers also said that they themselves were required to undergo a search when entering the court, which was never the case, and their ability to move freely throughout the facility was restricted in a way that harms their work.

The lawyers announced the strike at the start of an evidentiary hearing in the trial of Samer Arbid, the defendant in the murder of Rina Shnerb, and said they will not be attending their clients’ hearings. Another defendant, Walid Hanatsheh, was supposed to testify in the hearing, but attorney Laviv Haviv announced that his colleagues had decided not to appear in protest of the treatment of detainees and their lawyers.

“There are daily complaints by lawyers about violence against their clients, disrespect towards them by the system, about discussions purposefully held without the presence of defense attorneys, and a humiliating search that we are forced to undergo,” Haviv said. “This is an intolerable situation.”

A key issue raised by the lawyers is that hearings are being held without the presence of defense attorneys, when the law states that if a detainee has no legal representation, they should be offered a defense attorney on behalf of the court.

“The court has sentenced detainees in the absence of a defense attorney. This is against both the law and the rules of fair trial, and violates detainees’ rights – especially when it comes to administrative detention, which is itself an exceptional procedure,” attorney Yaman Zidan told Haaretz.  “The judge exacerbates the injustice when agreeing to judge them with no representation, and this is happening almost every day in hearings,” Zidan added.

According to Haviv, announcing the strike in the hearing in which Hanatsheh was supposed to testify was motivated by the defendant’s claim that he was beaten on the way to the courtroom for a previous hearing. Other lawyers told Haaretz that detainees and defendants testified that they were beaten when brought to court or to the post from which remote discussions are held via video camera.

The area leading to the courtrooms in the Ofer military court in 2022

These complaints have prompted lawyers to ask that their clients not be brought to hearings, in an attempt to prevent violence against them. Adv. Haviv added that detainees who are brought to hearings conducted via video spend hours waiting for their turn, since there are not enough video stations; and that while waiting, they are not allowed to eat or use the bathroom.

The lawyers attest to further difficulties in their work at Ofer since the beginning of the war. In addition to complaints about a humiliating inspection at the entrance to the court, they were forbidden access to the court’s administrative area.   Instead, they are forced to work from an area used by the families of detainees who come to watch the hearings. Additionally, since the beginning of the war, the IDF has prohibited detainees’ relatives attending hearings.

According to Adv. Zidan, there are also cases in which lawyers do not receive documents required for their work, such as judges’ decisions, due to the lack of access to the administrative area. “We have to chase people for two weeks to get decisions. It eats into the days we’re given to appeal,” he added. “These are basic things; it has nothing to do with the war, but it’s exploiting it.”

“The court can solve these issues, can put its foot down,” said Adv. Haviv of his and his colleagues’ complaints. “It is a shame they did not address our complaints – we sent them in writing to the president of the Court of Appeals and the Bar Association and asked for their intervention.”

There are currently 8,926 Palestinian security prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons. Of these, 3,484 are administrative detainees, constituting about 40% of all Palestinian prisoners.

According to Ofer military court lawyers, many detainees are initially held in regular detention and later transferred to administrative detention, even in cases where, in the past, the court would not order such detention.

The IDF said that “all those entering military courts in [the West Bank], including lawyers, are required to undergo an orderly screening, as is customary. Recently, an infrastructure update was made to separate the area of the military court in the Ofer complex, as is customary in the courts. The judges’ chambers and the administrative staff’s offices were separated from the section open to the public, where the court halls and the waiting area are located.”

It was added that “a dedicated, accessible and organized administration office was established in a section open to the public, and a dedicated work office was established next to it for the defense attorneys.”

Regarding wait times for long-distance hearings, the IDF Spokesperson Unit said: “During the emergency period which we are in, detainee hearings are held through an audiovisual system. There are sometimes delays in hearings due to various technical reasons related to the operation of the system, and they are being handled urgently to allow hearings to take place.”

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