It was 1am on 21 April when Suha Barghouti and her family were awakened by the sound of heavy banging on their front door. A few moments later, between thirty to forty soldiers stormed into Barghouti’s home in al-Bireh, near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, and demanded that she hand over her husband.
“They put us as hostages in the room. They took our mobiles and they talked to [my husband] and told him to come, otherwise they are going to smash the furniture and do bad things to us,” Barghouti told The Electronic Intifada.
She explained that only herself, her 22-year-old daughter Haneen, her sister and her young niece were home when the Israeli soldiers came to arrest her husband, Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh, a well-known Palestinian writer, academic and political activist.
“I told them that there are no men here. They asked me who were in the house and I told them four women,” Barghouti, who is a board member of the prisoner rights group Addameer and the Palestine Red Crescent Society, recalled.
“They didn’t allow us to use a phone or answer the phones. After around two hours, they told us that they were leaving. One soldier told my daughter that they arrested her father and they left,” she said.
Once in Israeli custody, Qatamesh was taken to the Ofer military prison where, according to his wife and lawyers, he was interrogated for a few minutes before being put into a cell.
“They didn’t interrogate him, only for a few minutes asking about regular things. They led him directly to the prison and they said that they were going to bring to [him] another administrative detention order,” Barghouti said.
This is not the first time that Qatamesh has been arrested. In the early 1990s, Israeli forces arrested him in front of his daughter, who was three years old at the time. After suffering from mistreatment and torture at the hands of Israeli security forces and intelligence officers, he was detained for almost six years under an administrative detention order.
According to an Amnesty International report from September 1998, he was placed under administrative detention in October 1993 “after a judge had ordered his release on bail, arguing that the prosecutor had failed to show sufficient evidence against him to justify his continued detention” (“Report: Five years after the Oslo Agreement: human rights sacrificed for “security”,” September 1998 [PDF])
After an international solidarity campaign calling for his release, Qatamesh was released in April 1998, the longest-serving prisoner held without charge under administrative detention orders.
“It’s so clear that he is there because of his ideas and political activism. He is a prisoner of conscience and he is there because of political reasons,” said Barghouti, about her husband’s recent arrest.
Still, the prospect that her husband would be arrested again — more than ten years after he was released from prison the first time — hadn’t crossed her mind, even as the Israeli soldiers were banging on her front door.
“I thought that somebody threw stones or something, and [that the soldiers] were searching for young men. I never, never thought that they were going to arrest my husband. There is no reason at all for them to capture my husband,” she said.
“When he was released [in 1998], I believed that it was finished. After the peace process and after the Palestinian Authority entered here, we thought that maybe this is the end of this kind of action of the Israelis. But from 1992 to 2011, it’s the same.”
Israel’s policy of administrative detention
Administrative detention is the detention of a person without charge or trial, and is authorized by an administrative — not judicial — order.
Israeli military and civil laws related to the policy of administrative detention are based on the Emergency Law of 1945, which was instated during the British Mandate of Palestine, before the creation of the State of Israel.
In the West Bank, which is governed under Israeli military laws, Military Order 1226, issued in 1988, allows Israeli army commanders to detain Palestinians living in the West Bank for up to six months if they have “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.”
Military Order 1591, which was issued in 2007, also states that the initial administrative detention order can be extended for additional six month terms if “the military commander has reasonable cause to believe that reasons of security of the region or public security still require the detention of the detainee” (Order Regarding Administrative Detention, 7 March 2007 [PDF]).
These six-month administrative detention terms can be renewed indefinitely.
“People can spend years in administrative detention without knowing the reason for the administrative detention and the ability to defend themselves properly. It’s a very harsh tool that they use because of the indefinite detention,” Sahar Francis, a lawyer and director of Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, told The Electronic Intifada.
Francis explained that the entire process of detention and imprisonment under administrative detention orders is also carried out through Israel’s military court system in the West Bank. Secret evidence is presented to a military court judge in administrative detention cases and both the detainee and the detainee’s lawyer are prevented from seeing this evidence justifying the detention order.
“The lawyer is not allowed to see the secret material and the judge decides whether to uphold or cancel the [administrative detention] order,” Francis said.
“You can appeal this decision to the military court of appeal and then you have to wait until the end of the order. Every time they renew the order it’s the same procedure. Actually, there’s no witnesses, no evidence, just the secret file. You don’t know what [the evidence is] against you, so you don’t know how to build your argument,” she added.
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, the highest number of administrative detainees was documented during the first intifada. Almost 1,780 Palestinians were held in administrative detention in November 1989.
As of March 2011, 217 Palestinians were being held under administrative detention orders in prisons run by the Israeli Prison Service.
Selective application of international law
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights outlines the rights of freedoms of individuals against unlawful arrest or detention, and states that “no one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.”
Article 4.1 of the Covenant states, however, that “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” a state can take restricted measures that go against their obligations, so long as these measures aren’t illegal under international law or discriminate.
Israel argues that since its creation, it has been under a state of emergency, and therefore is not subject to the provisions of the covenant as applied to its use of detention and imprisonment.
“The Israelis are trying to justify the use of administrative detention on the Fourth Geneva Convention although they don’t apply the Fourth Geneva Convention on the occupied territories. When it comes to their interest, they use it,” said Francis.
Indeed, Article 78 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that “if the Occupying Power considers it necessary, for imperative reasons of security, to take safety measures concerning protected persons, it may, at the most, subject them to assigned residence or to internment.”
According to Francis, the Israeli state’s selective application of Article 78 is problematic because the Israeli authorities ignore the restrictions through which the article is meant to be applied.
“It is limited for a very short period, and for very high security cases, and when there’s an immediate danger on the life of the people. Israel actually violates all these three limits in the Fourth Geneva Convention,” she said.
“[Israel’s administrative detention] could last for three years, four years, five years and sometimes more. It’s not because of very serious, immediate danger. In the majority of the cases, you would find that this is a procedure that they use when they fail to prosecute the person and prove that he was committing any act because of lack of any evidence,” Francis explained.
Devastating impact on Palestinian families
For Suha Barghouti, the time her husband spent in prison under Israeli administrative detention orders was extremely difficult on her family, especially for her only daughter, Haneen.
“A few days ago, when they arrested my husband, I found out that there are very deep marks on my daughter’s spirit. She was three years old at that moment [when they arrested her father in 1992], and the marks are still there. When the soldiers told her that [they] arrested her father again, she almost collapsed,” Barghouti said.
“The difficulties of the administrative detention are more than the regular prisoners because you never know when they are going to be released. Every six months, I used to prepare myself, to cook, to prepare my daughter Haneen that [her] father is going to be released today. And then all of a sudden, they [would] renew for him another six months,” she said.
Barghouti explained that pressure must come from the international community to end Israel’s policy of administrative detention and for her husband to be released from Israeli custody.
“It’s very important to put pressure among the governments, to put pressure on Israel and to make sanctions on Israel because they are violating basic human rights. It’s very important for the prisoners to have a fair trial and to cancel the administrative detention,” she said.
She added that she hoped her husband would be released in time to see his daughter Haneen graduate from the American University in Cairo next January.
“He was trying to get permission to go to Egypt so he can participate in Haneen’s graduation ceremony,” Barghouti said.
“He told me, ‘[For many] years I wasn’t watching her growing up. I wish I can be there the day that she will graduate from the university.’ It’s very important for us. I hope he can make it.”
Image courtesy of Suha Barghouti.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com/.