Host Diana Buttu speaks with Sahar Francis the General Director of Ramallah-based Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, a Palestinian NGO providing legal and advocacy support to Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. Sahar discusses the various measures the Israeli authorities have imposed under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to limit access by political prisoners of legal counsel and their families and the ongoing arrests throughout the West Bank amidst the pandemic.
View transcript here.
So far the the automatic implementing medical checks, serious medical checks for all the prisoners, that means that they are in the serious categories like old people, sick people. We have more than 700 prisoners that they are sick and they suffer from chronic diseases and serious health conditions, in some cases, not all of them of course, were checked by the prison system.
Welcome to This is Palestine, I'm Diana Buttu.
DB: There are an estimated 4700 Palestinian political prisoners being held in 17 prisons throughout Israel. This figure also includes 194 children under the age of 18. Although the UN has called for the release of this 194 children in the face of this pandemic, Israel has refused to release these children and they remain in prison to date. In March of this year, Israel passed a series of emergency regulations under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic to limit access by political prisoners of their families as well as to limit access to their lawyers. In this place. Palestinian lawyers demanded that these political prisoners be able to have regular telephone access to be able to speak with their family and their with their lawyers, and yet today, Israel has continued to refuse this demand as well. And while the restrictions have been eased in 48, including with the reopening of schools, and the reopening of all public spaces, when it comes to Palestinian political prisoners, the emergency regulations still remain in place, with Palestinian political prisoners unable to have regular access to their families and to their lawyers.
In today's episode, We will hear from Sahar Francis, the director of Addameer, a Palestinian human rights organization focused on the rights of Palestinian political prisoners. Sahar will discuss the various measures that the Israeli authorities have imposed under the cover of the Coronavirus to limit access by political prisoners of legal counsel and also of their families. She will also talk about the continued arrests throughout the West Bank even during this pandemic. Thank you very much Sahar for joining us. Sahar, I want to begin by asking you when the closures, when the lockdowns began, what exactly happened with Palestinian political prisoners? What is it that the Israeli prison authorities did?
SF: Good afternoon, Diana and thanks a lot for this opportunity. It's very important to highlight and to speak about the situation of the Palestinian political prisoners and the coronavirus situation inside the Israeli prisons. Actually with the beginning of this situation the Israeli authorities declared the situation of emergency. By declaring this they could initiate a new regulation and emergency regulations, and they did so. So they totally cancelled the whole family visits for the prisoners, claiming that this is a kind of protection for the prisoners themselves not to be affected. And later on, they also cancelled totally all the lawyers visits and any visit from outside to the prisons. Actually, they just allowed for the Red Cross committee to be able to enter to the prisons. Since then, these regulations were amended as well, so the situation is still up to date, that there is no family visits, no lawyers visits, and all these prisoners are totally isolated because the Palestinian prisoners don't have any access to public phones to contact their families and to be in touch with their loved ones to make sure that they know about their situation and to be updated and updating them about their situation. We were petitioning the Israeli High Court, actually. Several Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations against these regulations and asking them to enable phone calls between the prisoners and their families. So far, unfortunately, just the children, 180 more or less children, were able to contact their families and the Palestinian female prisoners, like 40, 41. And at some stage, they also tried to ban three of them Khaled Al-Jarrar, Mais Abu-Ush, and Ines Asafara were banned, but after petitioning the district court they were able last week to call their families.
DB: And yet what we see now, Sahar, is that inside Israel the restrictions have been completely eased if not completely lifted? So for example, we here now see that restaurants are open, gyms are open, shops are open as usual, malls are open as usual, and yet these emergency regulations are still in place.
SF: Yes, for sure. They also were amended, for next week, on the level of the prisons, because the prison authority claims that there is a threat that the virus would enter and it would be a serious circumstances if prisoners get to be affected. So they are requested to amend and the government amended, the Minister for interior Security Affairs, amended the declaration about the prisons as closed areas so there is no entry so far. We are not able to visit as well as the famillies as well. All those prisoners have call sessions actually, just last week, they started to do the sessions again and we meet the prisoners over video conference and those who are arrested newly under interrogation. As well, their extension of detention would take place over a video call, or sometimes a phone call where in such facilities there's no option to have a video conversation. So it's still restricted, actually.
DB: Sahar, can you please tell us if you know about what's happening when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus inside the prisons themselves, and whether the Israeli authorities have taken any measures to actually prevent the spread of the virus?
SF: Actually, there was a problem since the beginning with transparency and the information that the prison authority distributed and told us about the exact circumstances. So part of it our knowledge is based on the fact that some of the prisoners were released in these weeks and this is how we got to know what exactly is going on inside some of the prisons, not all of the prisons, of course, because the Palestinian prisoners are distributed in more than 17 facilities. So we are not able to get information and exact information about all the facilities. None of the prisoners actually were analyzed inside the prison as affected at least one in one case, one detainee that he was arrested in March released in mid April, late April, he was checked in by the Palestinian Authority health ministry and was founded as a sick person. Then we were informed and he was released from Ofer prison actually, just after this news, and out of the pressure of the prisoners, because at the beginning the authority in the prison were denying this fact that he was sick. The prisoners were threatening that they will go for hunger strike, if the prison authority is not implementing checks and taking steps to protect their safety. So the prison isolated some of them definitely those that they were with him in the same room, but not the whole section, and those that they suspected were in direct contact with him, they were sent for quarantine. They started to do checks for, random checks actually, for old prisoners for sick prisoners. They started to do checks for the female prisoners, part of them as well randomly and in other prisons. All the measures that the prison system took so far, were not self sufficient, I think, because they started it late. First of all, not immediately with all the declaration by the health ministry inside Israel about all the different medical measures, and it needed pressure from the prisoners and from outside like all these petitions that we were submitting goes to the prison authority to give the prisoners, maybe in the fourth or the fifth week, of masks and clothes and on the level of the hygiene stuff, for example or sanitation products. They just gave them the chloride to clean the rooms. And they started to do their own sanitation for the public. Facilities in the different sections, not inside the rooms of the prisoners for several weeks as well. The prison guards were entering to the rooms of the prisoners, to count them three times a week without any safety measures, without even wearing the mask. When three police officers in one prison were suspected to be affected, then they started to take more seriously all these measures of keeping distance and not entering to the rules with their ordinary clothes, like the police clothes actually, and they do enter the rooms as well to check the windows twice a day. So to be sure that no one is trying to escape. So they stopped it and they just do it once a day and not twice a day like before. And so so far they they are not implementing medical checks, serious medical checks, for all the prisoners that needs or that are in the serious categories like old people, sick people. We have more than 700 prisoners that they are sick and they suffer from chronic diseases in serious health conditions, in some cases, not all of them, of course, were checked by the prison system.
DB: And yet, during this period, Sahar, we also saw from the beginning of March that the Israeli authorities are continuing to arrest Palestinians. Can you speak to that? Do you know how many people have been arrested since since the emergency regulations were put into place in the West Bank? And and then how many political prisoners there are right now.
SF: Currently, there's 4,700, more or less. Since there's daily arrests and daily releases, it's very difficult to say a very exact figure. But on daily level, there's daily rates to the different Palestinian villages and cities like, specially in cases like Yaba for example, the village that was the town that was raided several times in the last two weeks. On average, there's more than 100 prisoners detainees every month actually. So they never stopped arresting new people in this difficult time, the opposite. They kept arresting, and they were sending most of the detainees that they were arrested from areas where there were suspicious of like presence of the virus, they were sending automatically the detainees for quarantine. Instead of arresting them and interrogating them, they were sending them immediately for 14 days of quarantine in very bad conditions. So at the first two weeks, we were also documenting very difficult conditions for those who were sent in Megiddo quarantine section or in Ailat or in other prisons. In some cases, the prisoners were kept in a cell, literally without anything, even without being able to do a shower and change their clothes on daily basis. And just after going to the court with these cases, we were enforcing them to change the conditions of these detainees and to start to offer them the proper treatment and the the proper facilities that they need in such a difficult time.
DB: So it sounds like not only the facilities but also that they weren't given access to proper legal counsel during this period as well.
SF: Of course, imagine the legal counsel over phone or video conference where you're not sure who's present from the other side, like, okay, you see that just the detainee, but are we really sure that there is no one, no guard, no police officer, no interrogator is present in the place that this is would affect the kind of conversation and the freedom of the detainee to talk with his counselor freely and to ask all the questions he wants. I think that's appropriate that last week, there was a draft law that was submitted on asking that these regulations become a temporary law for one year and this is very dangerous. Thinking about criminal legal procedures in such circumstances where you cannot meet your client and and have the enough time to prepare the case, I think this is effect seriously all of the fair trial procedures concept, and they don't care. So I think if it will pass and if it will become a really temporary low, this would be really with very bad impact on the whole process of the military trials in the occupied territory.
DB: And at one point, we saw that there was a statement that had been put out by the United Nations calling for the release of Palestinian children during this during this period. And we've also, having spoken to others, including families of prisoners who have where the political prisoner is elderly, or as you put it, somebody in need of chronic care, there was also talk of them being released as well. What happened to to this? Was it at all taken seriously by the Israelis?
SF: No, actually, as usual, Israel is not respecting all these calls coming from the UN level. And in this period, especially when knowing that in the same time they did this step to where they're internally to where the criminal prisoners they did early release hundreds of prisoners in order to make it easier on the level of the crowdedness inside the rooms in the prisons to face this threat of the virus. They did the opposite, actually, with the Palestinian prison political prisoners. They kept arresting people on daily level and they never released anyone based on the fact of the new situation and the need to make it easier and to get less people inside each cell and in each section.
DB: Well, thank you very much Sahar for all of the work that you're doing. What is it that you're going to be working on? Do you foresee any challenges in the coming few weeks?
SF: I think so. I think I'm not so optimistic that really we will go back to a normal life when it comes for the trial procedures, the extension of detention, the other procedures in these cases and the visits to the prisons. This actually will complicate more and more our work, especially with the political context. If really the annexation will take place soon, I think this would make the situation even worse, because we expect that the level of imprisonment will increase dramatically, I think in such a time. So I think we are going to face really very difficult time.
DB: Thank you, again, Sahar, for all all the work that you have done in the past and that you continue to do in the future. And thank you for continuing to stay on the frontlines during this difficult time and for updating us about the situation of Palestinian political prisoners. Thank you.
SF: Thank you, Diana for this opportunity.