Israel has begun the secret trial of an official from the Christian global development charity World Vision amid condemnation from human rights defenders.
On Tuesday, Mohammed El Halabi, the organization’s Gaza director, was brought before a pre-trial hearing in Bir al-Saba, a city in the south of present-day Israel.
All media and World Vision staff were prevented from attending the hearing, Halabi’s lawyer told the AFP news agency.
“A trial is legitimate if it is transparent,” World Vision International’s CEO Kevin Jenkins said.
“Secret trials are the most flagrant violation of the right to a public hearing. Holding these court proceedings behind closed doors would render any convictions obtained unsound,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.
Further court proceedings were reportedly postponed to October.
Israel detained Halabi in June, interrogated him for more than 50 days and then charged him with diverting up to $50 million to the military wing of Hamas – an amount more than twice World Vision’s entire Gaza program budget for the last decade.
“According to international standards trials can be held in secret only in exceptional circumstances,” Amnesty added, noting that “Israeli authorities have not put forward a case to explain why such conditions are necessary for this trial.”
Amnesty also called on Israel to immediately investigate reports that Halabi has been tortured into confessing to stealing amounts of money that are “highly dubious” given World Vision’s actual Gaza budget and the fact that he had limited authority over funds.
“Any evidence obtained through torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment must be excluded from proceedings,” Amnesty stated.
The human rights group noted, however, that the Israel Security Agency, also known as Shin Bet, which detained and interrogated Halabi for weeks without access to a lawyer has enjoyed blanket immunity for its routine use of torture.
“Between 2001 and 2016 the Israel Security Agency has been named in almost 1,000 complaints of torture and other ill-treatment,” Amnesty stated, “but no criminal investigations have been opened.”
Amnesty’s concern comes as diplomats from countries allied to Israel have cast doubt on its credibility over the World Vision allegations.
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz quoted “Western diplomats” saying Israel had only been interested in creating a “public diplomacy buzz” and had not provided a shred of evidence to any donor country to support the claims that World Vision funds had been transferred to Hamas.
After its arrests of Halabi and of an official from the UN development program UNDP, also over allegations of aiding Hamas, Israel launched a global smear campaign against humanitarian aid agencies in Gaza.
According to Haaretz, the Australian, British and US ambassadors had protested to Israel’s foreign ministry about the “lack of cooperation on the part of the Israeli authorities.”
The diplomats reportedly noted that Israel had “invested considerable efforts in briefings for the Israeli and international media. However, it has invested hardly any effort in transferring information and evidence to its allies and closest friends in the world.”
Several countries, including Australia and Germany, suspended grants to World Vision in light of the damaging Israeli accusations.
“Obviously with such serious allegations against a staff member, we are calling for him to have a fair hearing,” the charity’s CEO Kevin Jenkins told AFP.
World Vision has previously stated that it has been shown no evidence supporting the allegations against Halabi.
It has pointed out that the Israeli accusations fly in the face of the facts: the group’s entire budget in Gaza over the last decade was about $22.5 million – less than half the amount Israel claims Halabi diverted in just six years.
“We are not a naive organization. We have world class systems to prevent the sort of things that are being alleged here,” Jenkins told AFP. “It is very difficult to reconcile those numbers against the controls we have in place.”
That may be precisely why Israel, after its global media blitz, is now retreating behind the shield of secrecy.