Killing of Palestinian prisoner condemned

The United Against Torture Coalition (UAT), comprised of Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights NGOs that cooperate in the struggle to combat torture and abuse in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), is gravely concerned by the actions of the Israel Prison Service (IPS) in Ketziot Prison in the Negev that left one Palestinian prisoner dead and dozens more injured.

On Monday 22 October, in the early hours of the morning, whilst the prisoners were sleeping, the IPS riot control unit, the Massada Unit, carried out a search in the prisoners’ quarters; this allegedly was a search for weapons and other items prohibited by the prison authorities. The prisoners reacted in self-defense and protested and the excessive response by the Massada Unit led to the death of one prisoner, Mohammad Sati Mohammad al-Ashkar, 29 years of age. Al-Ashkar, from the town of Saida, near Tulkarem, was serving a two-year sentence and was due to be released in January 2008. Lawyers who visited the prisoners state that nine prisoners were severely wounded and required hospitalization; they also state that up to 260 prisoners were lightly injured, including those suffering from breathing difficulties. There is evidence to suggest that clubs, tear gas and possibly rubber bullets were used by the Massada Unit during the unrest. Haaretz newspaper reports that about 15 wardens were lightly wounded. To date, there have been no press reports or publicizing of any weapons or other items having been uncovered in the raid.

According to reports in Haaretz newspaper, wardens fired “non-lethal objects” at the crowd of prisoners. Major General Eli Gavison, Head of the Israeli Police Service (IPS) Southern District, refused to specify the nature of these “non-lethal objects.” However, he did state that al-Ashkar, who was mortally wounded, was hit in the head by a small bag filled with pellets; whilst wardens are only allowed to fire these pellet bags at prisoners’ legs, the IPS alleges that al-Ashkar was bending down at the time, which is why he was shot in the head. An autopsy has been performed by an independent doctor to assess the precise cause of his death and the results are soon to be released.

Eyewitness information relayed through visiting lawyers indicates that about 400 prisoners were held in a small visiting area whilst the wardens’ search went on; this visiting area had a glass partition between the visitors’ room and the prisoners’ room. Due to the lack of air and the cramped conditions, the mass of prisoners eventually broke this glass partition, at which point the wardens stormed the area. According to the testimonies, one of the severely injured prisoners was shot in the groin by a rubber bullet, at a close range of one meter, during the clashes. The prisoners were then held in the same area for approximately seven hours before those wounded were provided with medical treatment. Our reports state that al-Ashkar was shot at close range in the tent area of the prison; after being wounded, he was taken to the confined visiting area with the other hundreds of prisoners and consequently also had to wait for approximately seven hours before he could be taken to hospital, where he eventually died from his wound.

It is appropriate here to recall that the detention and imprisonment of Palestinians in prisons inside Israel is in contravention of international humanitarian law requirements. The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, sets down the legal rules relating to occupations and in Article 49 specifically prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers and the deportation of persons from the occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power, regardless of motive. In transferring Palestinians to prisons in Israeli land, the Israeli state is breaching its international duties as an Occupying Power in flagrant violation of international law. As an unlawful transfer, this is considered to be a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and also constitutes a war crime under Article 8(2)(a)(vii) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). As a transfer of part of the population of the occupied territory outside of this territory, this also constitutes a serious violation of the laws and customs of international armed conflict under Art 8(2)(b)(viii) of the 1998 Rome Stature. Although Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, its provisions carry considerable weight as customary law to be abided by all nations. The UAT coalition demands that the Israeli authorities comply with their duties and put an end to this unlawful transfer of Palestinian prisoners to prisons inside Israel.

Haaretz reports that whilst about 1,000 prisoners took part in the protest, 535 wardens are reported to have taken part in the raid that provoked it. Furthermore, it seems that they stood prepared for such unrest. According to prisoners’ lawyers, this raid contravened an agreement between the IPS and the prisoners, under which it was stated that there would be no unannounced night raids. The existence of such an agreement indicates some past understanding between the two parties, but its deliberate breach means that the response could have been foreseen by the prison authorities. In the light of these circumstances, UAT questions the proportionality and necessity of the force used by the wardens against the prisoners, as required in various human rights instruments. Specifically, Article 3 of the 1979 UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states that law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty, and this is upheld by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. In protest against this use of force, Palestinian prisoners held across Israel observed a hunger strike on Tuesday 23 October.

Israeli Prison Commissioner Benny Kaniak has appointed an inquiry committee to look into the incident; UAT is concerned that this inquiry will not be impartial but asks for public access to the report of the inquiry, to allow for accountability in this field. UAT also calls for the establishment of an independent inquiry committee to look at this specific event and to include a detailed review of regulations concerning the use of force by wardens in Israeli prisons.

UAT also calls for an independent and external inquiry by an international body. UAT proposes an examination of the conditions of imprisonment of Palestinians in Israeli jails, and specifically the investigation of the roots and the consequences of the incident at Ketziot. It also calls for Israel to accept Article 20 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which would have enabled such an inquiry through the UN Committee Against Torture. UAT also calls for Israel to accept individual complaints and communications from the UN Committee Against Torture under Article 22 of the Convention Against Torture.

In addition, UAT calls for Israel to sign and ratify the 2002 Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which would provide a universal, international system of unannounced and preventive visits to places of detention. This would open prisons and places of detention to public scrutiny and greater accountability; this would also require Israel to create a domestic, independent body in addition to traditional monitoring by the Committee against Torture. UAT also demands that Israel allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to enter the country to enable him to carry out his functions, as he has been denied entry since 2002.

The UAT Coalition deplores the events at Ketziot prison on 22 October. UAT appeals for swift and firm action on the above issues and calls upon the international community and international human rights and humanitarian organizations to intervene and demand that Israel abide by international human rights standards and the Fourth Geneva Convention. More specifically, there must be an improvement in detention and imprisonment conditions in accordance with the 1977 UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the 1988 UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under any Form of Detention or Imprisonment. Above all, those responsible must be held accountable for their actions.