Israel: Activist Convicted After Unfair Trial

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Israel: Activist Convicted After Unfair Trial

Leader of Protests on Unlawful Land Confiscation Faces 20 Years in Jail

WASHINGTON - 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.

Background

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.

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