Israel/West Bank: Jail for Peaceful Protesters
(Jerusalem) – An Israeli military appeals court’s decision on January 11, 2011, to increase the prison sentence of a Palestinian man who protested Israel’s construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank compounds the grave due process concerns raised by his conviction, Human Rights Watch said today.
Abdallah Abu Rahme, an advocate of nonviolent protests against Israel’s de facto confiscation of land from the West Bank village of Bil’in, was convicted in August on charges of organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations and inciting protesters to damage the separation barrier, throw stones at Israeli soldiers, and participate in violent protests. In November, the military prosecution appealed, seeking to increase his one-year prison sentence. The appeals court increased the sentence to 16 months.
The conviction was based on allegations that did not specify any particular incidents of wrongdoing and on statements by children who retracted them in court, Human Rights Watch said. The children alleged that their statements had been coerced and that they did not understand Hebrew, the language in which Israeli military interrogators prepared the statements they signed.
Abu Rahme had been acquitted on charges of illegal possession of weapons, based on an art exhibit in the shape of a peace sign that he constructed out of used bullet cartridges and tear gas canisters the Israeli army had used to quell protests in Bil’in.
In another case involving a peaceful protester, Jonathan Pollak began serving a three-month sentence on January 11. This case appears to involve the selective enforcement of criminal laws in order to punish peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today.
On December 27, 2010, the Tel Aviv Magistrate‘s Court sentenced Pollak, a 28-year-old Israeli, to prison for participating in a nonviolent demonstration in 2008 against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip that the court deemed an “illegal gathering.” The police arrested Pollak on January 31, 2008, while he was in a group of 20 to 30 people who had been riding their bicycles through the streets of Tel Aviv as a form of protest.
Police testified that they detained Pollak because they recognized him as a prominent activist and assumed he had organized the protest. But the police allowed the protest to continue and did not arrest any other participants. The prosecution did not accuse Pollak of violence or of disobeying the police.
The court convicted Pollak of “participating in an illegal gathering” under Israel’s penal code, which states that if “three people or more” act “in a way that gives people around them a reasonable ground to fear that the gatherers will commit an act that will disturb the peace… then their gathering is illegal.” In his verdict, the judge determined that the cyclists were disturbing the traffic, and that such an action falls under the category of “disturbing the peace.” The protest did not require a permit under the Israeli Police Act, since it involved fewer than 50 participants.
Environmentalists in Tel Aviv have repeatedly rallied for more bike lanes by cycling in groups that slow down auto traffic, but to date none are known to have been arrested, Human Rights Watch said. Police did not arrest any of the thousands of motorcycle riders who blocked the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway for several hours in September 2009 to protest an increase in insurance premiums for motorcycles.
Pollak’s prison sentence, for participating in what the authorities acknowledged to be a peaceful demonstration, appears to violate Israel’s obligation to respect the right to peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said.