Imprisonment as political pressure: Addameer’s Sahar Francis interviewed

Sahar Francis

The Palestinian nongovernmental organization Addameer was founded in 1992 to promote and protect the rights of political prisoners. The Electronic Intifada interviewed Sahar Francis, a human rights lawyer and the director of Addameer, about the recent repression wave targeting Palestinian human rights activists protesting Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank. Three activists, Jamal Juma, Abdallah Abu Rahmah and Mohammad Othman, have been detained over the past several months. They join the 8,338 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons that Addameer recorded at the end of 2009. More than 300 detainees are children, 18 are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and 738 are from Gaza. At least 291 prisoners are held in administrative detention, while 778 prisoners are serving life sentences.

Adri Nieuwhof: Can you talk about Addameer’s work and how you became involved?

Sahar Francis: “Addameer” is Arabic for “conscience.” We offer legal services to Palestinian political prisoners under Israeli occupation. Our organization represents political prisoners in Israel’s military and civil courts. We document and research violations of rights of prisoners, for example, torture, administrative detention and ill-treatment of prisoners in their daily life in prison. Addameer is engaged in campaigns and advocacy work. We publish public statements and urgent appeals on behalf detainees, and we submit reports on the situation of the political prisoners to the UN Human Rights Committee and UN Special Rapporteurs. We participate in national and international NGO [nongovernmental organization] networks. In 1994, I started to practice as a human rights lawyer at the Society of Saint Yves, a Catholic human rights center. I referred cases to Addameer and visited political prisoners as a volunteer for Addameer. In 1998, I joined Addameer as a staff member.

AN: On what grounds are people arrested?

SF: More than 8,000 Palestinian political prisoners are held in Israeli jails. The majority were involved in activities for different political parties and student organizations. Or they were active in their community or in charity work. For example, Israel declared all organizations affiliated with Hamas as illegal through a military order; it did not matter if they were involved in charity or social economic activities. According to the Israeli military courts most Palestinian detainees were involved in what they call activities that are a threat to the security and public order.

AN: How would you characterize the way Israel treats the Palestinian political prisoners?

SF: Of course there is torture, ill treatment and abuse. I would say this happens at all stages: from the first moment of their arrest to their interrogation, then their trial and until they are finally imprisoned. During interrogation detainees can be threatened with the arrest of family members, which sometimes actually happens. The interrogators excessively use blindfolds and handcuffs, and they tie up detainees in painful positions. You can find more information about the torture and ill treatment of Palestinian detainees on our website.

The health conditions in Israeli prisons are very bad. Prisoners who are in jail longer than ten years develop chronic diseases. Sick people don’t get the proper treatment. When detainees have had a heart attack or developed cancer, it takes such a long time before their illness is even diagnosed. The visits of family to the detainees are a problem. In 1995, all of the Palestinian political prisoners were transferred to Israel. This is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Families have to ask the Israeli authorities for a permit to visit their family. The procedures are complex and turn out to be an obstacle to family visits. The prisoners from Gaza have been denied any family visits since June 2007, when Gaza was closed off by Israel.

AN: Do the prisoners or their families receive support?

SF: Yes, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Ministry of Prisoners’ Affairs financially supports the political prisoners and their families. During the last few years Israel has decreased the rations of food, soap, personal hygiene items and cigarettes. Prisoners depend on the support of their families and have to use small amounts of money from the PA to buy goods in the prison canteen. In fact the PA is indirectly contributing to provide basic needs of the Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. [Author’s note: The Israeli Prison Ordinance regulates the treatment of prisoners. Article 20 states: “The administration is to provide each prisoner, during the regular hours, with sufficient, good quality, well prepared nutritious meals that should maintain the health and strength of the prisoners.]

AN: Can you discuss the recent arrests of Palestinian civil movement leaders?

SF: I think the policy of imprisonment that is used has been the same for a long time. It is used to put more pressure on the people who resist the occupation. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and the Stop the Wall have successfully raised a lot of international support. That is why there is a special attack on them. Israel is not happy with this international attention. The BDS and Stop the Wall campaigns inform the public about the occupation, and lead to the demand to end the occupation. Israel is so angry about the success. They want people to pay a high price for their involvement. It is not only imprisonment, but also harassment, house searches, creating problems when traveling abroad. Israel thinks it can break the soul of the people and the movement this way.

AN: Do you see a role for citizens in other countries to support Palestinian political prisoners?

SF: Citizens should be aware that Palestinian political prisoners are not terrorists. That is how Israel tries to define them. Citizens could demand the release of all the Palestinian political prisoners – as a group, without conditions. The political prisoners should not be used as bargaining chips in negotiations. I think we should connect the issue of the Palestinian political prisoners more with the occupation: through BDS campaigns, through campaigns calling to end the occupation and the release of all of the Palestinian political prisoners. Supporting the ending of the occupation, including the issue of the political prisoners, the rights of refugees, our right to self-determination and recognition of East Jerusalem as our capital, that is the way to support the political prisoners. People can also support our specific campaigns on female prisoners, administrative detention, or special cases.

Image by Mette Kramer Kristensen.

Adri Nieuwhof is an independent consultant based in Switzerland.