Israel accused of cracking down on lawyers

Photo: Israel accused of cracking down on lawyers / Arab-Israel Relations

A Ramallah-based rights group is accusing Israeli authorities of cracking down on Palestinian lawyers, following a series of indictments and arrests of attorneys based on charges of passing information between Hamas members in and outside Israeli prisons, Al Jazeera reported.

The Palestinian Prisoners Society said the moves against the lawyers were "dangerous" and "unprecedented". "It's a scare tactic to instil fear into those who are working hard to provide the basic levels of protection for Palestinian detainees," said Qaddura Fares, the group's head.

Fares was referring to the recent indictment of a 42-year-old Palestinian-Israeli lawyer, and the arrest of six people, five of them lawyers, from East Jerusalem.

Mohammad Abed, a Galilee native, was indicted last month on charges of passing messages between detainees and the Hamas leadership, and receiving approximately one million shekels ($288,800) for his alleged services. Abed was arrested along with four others who worked for the Solidarity Foundation for Human Rights in the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

In a statement, the Shin Bet (Israel's internal security service) said the lawyer-prisoner communication was intended to help carry out attacks inside Israel. "The cynical use by terrorist groups of the policy of respecting prisoners' legal rights is particularly disturbing in light of the significant increase in the scope of terrorism in the West Bank, and particularly in the increase in plans to carry out kidnapping attacks for bargaining purposes to bring about the release of prisoners," the Shin Bet said.

In March, Shireen Issawi and four other attorneys from an East Jerusalem law firm were arrested after an Israeli police-Shin Bet investigation found that the lawyers met with clients - senior Palestinian faction members inside the country's prisons - and passed coded political messages pertaining to prisoner hunger strikes, collaborators with Israel, and military operations.

Israeli police said Issawi and her brother Midhat, who worked in the law firm's administration, were in charge of a network of attorneys who passed these letters in exchange for money. The Issawis denied all charges.

Fares said part of the lawyers' job is to carry messages between detainees and their families and that Israeli authorities are well aware of all meetings held between the attorneys and their clients inside prisons.

"The Israelis are aware of who these prisoners are," he said. "Some are leaders of Palestinian factions and they have been voted into these positions by other detainees and Israel knows this. So what's changed now?"

Jawad Bulos, who runs Palestinian Prisoners Society's legal department, said Israeli authorities have decided to "re-draw the map that identifies the interaction between lawyers and detainees", and accused the authorities of illegally taping and mistranslating client-lawyer conversations.

"The evidence being used against the lawyers was collected during a private conversation between a detainee and a lawyer," he said. "As lawyers we should ask: Is Israel secretly listening to and taping conversations, acts that are prohibited even by Israeli law?"

The Israeli prime minister's office declined to comment on the issue, and the police did not respond to several inquiries made by Al Jazeera.

Midhat and Shireen are siblings of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian detainee who was released in December 2013 after going on hunger strike for more than 250 days protesting against his incarceration.

According to the Issawis' mother, Laila, Israeli soldiers surrounded their East Jerusalem home on March 6, went through Shireen's room and confiscated a number of items, including a computer and phone. Shireen was detained that day, and is currently in HaSharon prison in Israel. All her court hearings so far have ended up in adjournment without a verdict. Her brother Midhat also remains behind bars.

Shireen, five of her siblings and both her parents have all been incarcerated at some point, with sentences ranging between six months and 22 years. "Since 1987, my entire family has only ever been united once, for just two months," Laila Issawi told Al Jazeera. "Israeli authorities started arresting my children when they were as young as 14. They would then release them for a small period of time only to detain them again."

Four other lawyers were arrested on related charges around the same time: Amr Iskafi, Nadim Gharib, Mahmoud Abu Sneineh and Amjad al-Safadi. All four were released and placed on house arrest with a 20,000 shekels ($5,700) bail and four bail guarantors, according to Palestinian prisoners rights group, Addameer.

One of the lawyers, Amjad al-Safadi, committed suicide shortly after his release. Safadi was first arrested on April 4 when he was visiting clients at Israel's Hadarim prison. He was later released, but placed on house arrest on April 24. Five days later, he took his own life. The Palestinian Prisoners Society claimed it was because he was beaten throughout his 45-day detention.

Two Israeli groups - Physicians For Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel - have demanded an investigation into the circumstances of Safadi's death and his interrogation while in prison.

Dr Zeev Weiner, a psychiatrist and volunteer with PHR-IL said: "The death of Amjad Safadi proximate to an Israel Security Agency (ISA) interrogation could be a harsh symptom of Israel's interrogation policy. It raises difficult questions regarding the use of torture in defiance of the law and on the culture of impunity for torturers in Israel."

Torture is yet to be codified in Israeli criminal law, the groups explained, adding that a criminal investigation has never been launched into any of the approximately 850 complaints of torture submitted to the Israeli Attorney General since 2001.]

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