Rights Groups Claim Israeli Military Courts Are Biased
RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank (AP) _ Human rights groups claim Israeli military courts that try Palestinians for such things as throwing stones at soldiers are biased because both judges and witnesses are army comrades.
The groups also maintain that Israeli soldiers brought before the same courts on charges of abusing Palestinians get proportionately lighter sentences than the Arabs.
The military rejects the claims.
″Palestinians throw stones often to kill. Soldiers act in response to the violence,″ said Brig. Gen. Amnon Straschnow, head of the military court system.
He maintained the trials are fair. He said several hundred Palestinians have been acquitted in stone-throwing cases, even when soldiers identified the accused.
″We are conducting justice under fire,″ Straschnow said in an interview. ″This may not be a classic war, but it is a kind of war. But we try to balance this security problem which is unprecedented, on the one hand, with the need to honor individudal rights.″
One recent day in the military court in Ramallah, a 15-year-old Palestinian, Munzer Zaatari, was convicted of throwing stones at soldiers in the West Bank village of El Ram on May 9, although he insisted he was in Jerusalem at the time.
The military judge, Maj. Shlomo Isaacson, decided on the guilty verdict even though a key witness, a soldier, contradicted his own previously written statement about the location of the arrest.
Isaacson sentenced Zaatari to 10 months in jail, although no one was hurt in the stoning incident.
″These actions have turned into a plague on our country which must be uprooted,″ the judge said.
″I didn’t do anything,″ the jean-clad Zaatari shouted as a soldier led him out of the courtroom. In an adjacent courtroom the same day, Maj. Jonathan Livni acquitted Ibrahim Jaber, 18, of charges of throwing stones at soldiers Nov. 16. He had been caught with a slingshot and a knife, but Livni based his decision on the testimony of a soldier who said he had recognized the stonethrowers from a distance of 150 yards.
The trials were among dozens that are held daily to process most of the 35,000 Arabs who, by official count, have been arrested since the uprising began 18 months ago.
Before the start of the rebellion, which has claimed the lives of more than 500 Palestinians and 22 Israelis, the military courts dealt mainly with cases involving armed attacks or terrorism.
Today they are inundated with cases involving stonings, tire burnings, flag raisings, demonstrations.
More than 13,000 Palestinians have been tried since December 1987, when the uprising began, compared to about 1,000 the previous year, according to army statistics.
The average sentence has been a year in jail and a fine the equivalent of $500. Many of those arrested are released before being brought to trial and about 6 percent have been acquitted. Nearly 5,000 others are awaiting trial.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said 8,500 Palestinians are behind bars for uprising-related offenses excluding 4,000 security prisoners jailed earlier. He said the army intends to increase its prison capacity to accommodate 1,500 more.
Straschnow said the heavy caseload has forced him to double the number of judges to six full time and 60 reservists on call.
In April he also implemented a Supreme Court recommendation to set up a new army appeals court to give Palestinians a second chance.
″It is an excellent example of the rule of law even in a difficult period like this,″ Straschnow said.
However, as in the case of Zaatari, Palestinian attorneys are reluctant to appeal, fearing they will set a precedent that will institutionalize harsh sentences for acts such as throwing stones. A human rights report by the U.S. State Department published in January said ″acquittals are rare″ for Palestinians in Israeli military courts.
The civil rights group Al Haq, an Arab-run affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, said, ″Evidence of an Israeli soldier in military court is almost always believed in preference to the detainees.″
Another focus of criticism has been the wide use of so-called administrative detention in which activists are jailed for up to six months without trial. About 5,000 Arabs have been held without trial during the course of the uprising; 1,508 currently are held in such detention, according to the army.
Straschnow said administrative detention was used only in serious cases where evidence could not be submitted in open court to protect the source, presumeably an informer or secret agent.
″We maintain the rules of standard and reasonable trial and due process,″ Straschnow said. He noted that trials are public and suspects are represented by lawyers.
″It’s a hopeless case, this military system,″ said Osama Saadi, Zaatari’s Palestinian lawyer. ″It’s arbitrary. The judges and prosecutors are on the same side, so one side’s story is usually accepted more than the other,″
Of 67 Israeli soldiers who have gone on military trial, 36 were found guilty of misconduct, ranging from assault and battery to causing death by unnecessary use of beatings or shootings.
The heaviest sentence has been 21 months for causing death.
An additional 400 soldiers have been disciplined by their commanders with such punishments as loss of rank or position.