Audio: “They persecuted Ameer to keep us silent”

The trial of Palestinian citizen of Israel and civil society leader Ameer Makhoul resumes today in Haifa. Charged with espionage and other trumped-up security allegations, Makhoul denies the charges and maintains that “evidence” gathered by the state was obtained through coercion. Last month The Electronic Intifada contributor Hyun Lee interviewed Makhoul’s wife, activist Janan Abdu, and Gabrielle Rubin, media coordinator with Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel about Makhoul’s case.

Download MP3 of the interview (6.9 MB)

Janan Abdu (Ben White)

Hyun Lee: First, tell us: who is Ameer Makhoul?

Janan Abdu: Ameer is the leader of Ittijah, the Union of Arab Community Associations. He is also a political activist. A long time ago, he was the chairman of the Arab student movement. And that’s how we met. Ameer, as part of his work, participated in international and local conferences and meetings with people from abroad, from the Arab world. His opinion was that the Arab world is not our enemy. He was writing about the right of return of Palestinian [refugees] and about the one-state solution.

HL: And recently, the GSS, the General Security Services of Israel, the equivalent of the FBI in the United States, raided your home. Tell us what happened.

JA: One and half years ago, the GSS interrogated him about his activities. They said to him, “We can disappear you. We are building a case against you. And the next time we invite you to come to us, you can say goodbye for a long time to your family.”

And this is exactly what happened. On 6 May, three months ago, at 3am, we had been sleeping, and we heard a very hard knock at the door. Someone [was] calling Ameer, “Open the door!” We opened the door and saw a huge group of policemen and people from the GSS. And they entered our home. My daughter told me there were 16 people — 15 men and one woman. And directly as they entered our home, they caught Ameer, and they said to him, “You are under arrest.” And the director of the group came to me and said, “We are arresting your husband and we are searching your home.” I attempted to see if he has any [court] order to identify [himself], but he refused. He just said to me, “Keep silent. Sit down.” I said, “No, you are violating our rights. I don’t trust you. You are like a thief coming to my home at this time and terrifying my two daughters, [aged] 12 and 17.”

I refused to let them continue the search, but they continued. They took all the computers — mine, my daughters’, not just Ameer’s things. They took my tape recorder and a lot of things. I argued with [the commander] and he started laughing and said, “Who’s the man here! Who’s the man here!” and he said, “Shut up and sit. Otherwise, we can use violence and we can arrest you.” He caught my hand and tried to force me to sit. All of this was in front of my two daughters. I continued to say, “I know the law. I know my rights. What you are doing now is violent and a violation of our rights,” but he didn’t want to hear anything. They continued to search and take things, and after about half an hour, they took Ameer away with them. And I [came to] know later that they took him to the Ittijah office and they did the same thing at the Ittijah office. They took the computers, a lot of papers, a lot of things, and they made a mess there.

For longer than two hours, they kept us as prisoners at our home. In the middle of the search, I heard the phone ringing and I wanted to answer, and I said, “I ask you to let me answer. My mother is in a bad situation in the hospital.” And later, one month later, she died in the hospital. But they didn’t let me answer. And another thing, just one note — when I attempted to see if they have any permission to do the search, I saw that they had one and it was written on 22 April. So the judge signed the order on 22 April. That means they had two weeks of opportunity to come to our home or to his office and [they did] not [have] to choose to come in the middle of the night.

HL: After your husband was arrested, he was held for 12 days and tortured. He didn’t have access to lawyers or communication with anyone on the outside. What was going through your mind during that time?

JA: All the 12 days, I kept thinking about if they could do what they have done to a woman and two daughters, what can they do to Ameer when they kidnap him, with nobody knowing about what’s going on? There was a gag order, no permission for an objective doctor to see him, no permission for lawyers to see him. After 12 days, when the lawyers were allowed to see him, I heard about the torture, I heard about the violations.

I think it was a message to our community, [as if to say] “We can hold you. We are above the law.” And we can see that [the GSS is] controlling all the procedures. They’re controlling the court hearings. They can control even the medical treatment. The doctor who came to Ameer’s prison was a doctor paid by the prison, and Ameer cannot see his own medical report.

It’s obvious that it’s part of the persecution of Arab activists and political leaders. It’s a message to all of us, to keep us silent, to make us afraid. [Israel is] supposed to be the only democratic state in the area, [but] you can see that all the laws, even the racist procedures, are all controlled by the GSS. When you are talking about the security of Israel, everything [the GSS does] is legal, everything [the GSS does] is accepted, and every Arab is a suspect. It’s so hard. It’s unfair. But we have no other choice. We have one choice — to believe in Ameer, to believe in his right to be free. This is the only solution that we have — to continue — and this is also what Ameer believes and needs.

HL: Where is he detained and have you gone to see him?

JA: [Ameer is detained at] Gilboa jail, near the border with Jordan. Last Monday, we were there. We arrived at about 10:30am. We were supposed to see him in half an hour, maximum one hour. We waited there about four hours on a very hot day. It’s a way of making us feel frustrated, to discourage us from coming to visit. But you know, they’re trying to make it harder, but when we feel this, we get more courage and the power to continue.

HL: What are the charges against Ameer?

Gabrielle Rubin: If I remember correctly, it’s three counts — there’s espionage and aggravated espionage, which are two separate counts, and assisting a foreign agent in a time of war.

HL: Many Palestinians who are in the Israeli prison system for asserting their rights as Palestinians are classified by the Israeli government as “security prisoners.” How are they treated differently by the prison and the court system?

GR: We call them political prisoners, because [it is overwhelmingly] Palestinians who are indicted and imprisoned for political actions … Israel calls this blanket [category] “acts against the security of the state.” What this means in practice while you’re in prison is that beyond the fact that you’re jailed, there are many so-called privileges that you are not provided. One of the main things is this whole issue of physical contact during visits. Security prisoners are prevented from having physical contact during visits. It’s like what you see in the movies; it’s through a glass window, through a phone. There’s also the issue — and this is something that was experienced by Ameer — it’s known that the conversations are recorded, because of “security reasons.” And [there are] also a lot of other limitations — limitation on the kinds of books, the number of books you can have, what you can study, how you can study.

I also want to give more background on the first 12 days when Ameer was prevented from meeting with any attorneys and this sweeping gag order which prevented any [publicity] about his case. There’s a process where a person is arrested and he’s banned from meeting with a lawyer, and every few days, a judge needs to authorize the continuation of his arrest. This process is done ex parte, which means that Ameer, because he’s banned from meeting with his lawyers, is not present in the courtroom. He’s present in the structure of the court in case the judge wants to ask him anything. The evidence that is provided by the GSS and the state is secret evidence, meaning that the only person who gets to see them is the judge. Obviously the lawyer representing Ameer is not allowed to see this evidence. And once you talk about “security offenses,” it’s this blanket over-broad definition, and I dare say that judges are rubber-stamping these decisions and don’t really look into the merits of the case.

So this went on for 12 days, but if I remember correctly, on day ten, the legal defense team decided to do something that was very extraordinary. They said, “We’re not going to continue with this farce, and the next time there’s a detention extension, if Ameer is not there and we’re not allowed to meet with him, we’re just not going to appear and participate in this game.” And it worked, because basically, on the same day, the ban was lifted and for the first time, Ameer was allowed to meet with his lawyers.

And this is something that is not extraordinary with Palestinian detainees in Israel, and of course the occupied territories. There, [Palestinians are tried in] military courts and of course this happens all the time, this very problematic use of denying people the right to meet with their attorneys, the gag order preventing the media from reporting on it, and the use of secret evidence that the lawyer of the defendant doesn’t have any access to and isn’t allowed to review.

HL: And what is the current status of Ameer’s case now?

JA: The next hearing is in the middle of September and by then, Ameer is supposed to be read his charges and is supposed to meet with his lawyers but until now the lawyers still cannot see him.

HL: And how’s Ameer’s health?

JA: He’s getting better. Two months passed since he was tortured. We know that he suffered from head pain and back pain.

GR: He’s had issues with deterioration of his vision.

HL: Is there support for Ameer from the Jewish public?

JA: In the solidarity movement, there are a lot of Jewish people from Israel and outside [supporting Ameer]. And it’s so important to say that, because the Israeli media and the GSS are always trying to deal with these issues like the Arabs are the enemy of the Jews, and it’s not like that. The problem is with Zionism and not with the Jews. And we have the solidarity of professors and academics in Israel. They wrote [letters] and participated in demonstrations in Petach Tikva [where Ameer was initially detained and tortured] and Haifa and they continue to believe that it’s not only an “Arab problem” or “Palestinian problem.” It’s a problem of the undemocratic state. Maybe Arabs pay the price, but it’s a problem of all of the citizens of Israel.

Based in New York City, Hyun Lee is a member of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, which fights against US war and militarism on the Korean peninsula. She traveled to Palestine in August 2010 as part of a delegation organized by the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago.