EU diplomats attend Bil’in protest organizer’s appeal

The UK’s Consul General in Jerusalem attended the appeal hearing in the case of Abdallah Abu Rahmah at the Ofer Military Court of Appeals today, along with many other European diplomats. Former US president Jimmy Carter and The Elders issued a statement calling for Abu Rahmah’s immediate release earlier today.

British Consul General, Sir Vincent Fean, headed a mission of more than a dozen European diplomats from various countries today, at the Ofer Military Court of Appeals. The diplomats, from the UK, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Malta and Denmark, as well as from the EU itself, all attended a hearing in the military prosecution petition to aggravate the already harsh sentence of Bil’in protest organizer, Abdallah Abu Rahmah.

Sir Vincent Fean gave a short statement to the press, noting his support EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton’s statement labeling of Abu Rahmah as a human rights defender, and noted that he had already finished serving his sentence last month. Last month, British Foreign Minister, William Hague, met with leading Palestinian grassroots organizers in an unprecedented show of support in face of ongoing Israeli repression.

Earlier today, former US president Jimmy Carter and The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders, called for Abdallah Abu Rahmah’s immediate release. Carter said in the Elders’ release that, “Israeli military prosecutors want to extend Abdallah Abu Rahmah’s sentence as a deterrent to others who may follow his example. The Elders believe that his example of non-violent resistance against the occupation is a model that others should follow”.

Members of The Elders met Abu Rahmah last year in the West Bank village of Bil’in where he has played a leading role in weekly protests against the occupation and settlements. “Desmond Tutu, Ela Bhatt, Gro Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson were impressed by Abu Rahmah and praised his wise leadership of effective, non-violent civil action”, the statement said.

On October 11 2010, Abu Rahmah was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for his prominent role in Bil’in’s successful campaign against the construction of Israel’s Separation Barrier on its lands. Abu Rahmah was convicted of two Freedom of Expression charges – incitement and organizing illegal demonstrations, but was cleared of all charges connecting him with direct violence.

Abu Rahmah was to be released from prison on November 18th, when his prison term ended, but was kept in jail on the order of the Military Court of Appeals. The controversial decision directly conflicts with the jurisprudence of the Israeli Hight Court on the issue, instructing that only in the most extenuating of circumstances should a prisoner be kept under arrest after his term has been served.

After ordering that Abu Rahmah be kept in detention past his release date of October 18th, the Military Court of Appeals heard the prosecution’s appeal today demanding to aggravate the one-year sentence imposed on Abu Rahmah. The prosecution is asking the court to harshen the sentence so that it exceeds two years imprisonment. The prosecution argued that Abdallah Abu Rahmah’s case is more severe than fellow Bil’in leader Adeed Abu Rahmah’s case, who has almost completed a similar sentence related to organizing demonstrations in Bil’in.

Today’s appeal was attended by diplomats from the United Kingdom, the European Union, the European Commission, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Denmark and France. The head of the Maltese diplomatic mission was also on hand to hear the appeal. There is no scheduled date for a decision from the military judge in the appeal. Abu Rahmah will remain in military prison until the sentence is read. This could take months.

Abu Rahmah was declared a human rights defender by the European Union. His conviction and sentence generated international outrage, and was denounced by human rights organizations and the international community alike, including EU foreign policy chief,Catherine Ashton.

Abu Rahmah, the coordinator of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was arrested last year by soldiers who raided his home at the middle of the night and was subsequently indicted before an Israeli military court on unsubstantiated charges that included stone-throwing and arms possession. Abu Rahmah was cleared of both the stone-throwing and arms possession charges, but convicted of organizing illegal demonstrations and incitement.

An exemplary case of mal-use of the Israeli military legal system in the West Bank for the purpose of silencing legitimate political dissent, Abu Rahmah’s conviction was subject to harsh international criticism. The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, expressed her deep concern “that the possible imprisonment of Mr Abu Rahma is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest[…]”, after EU diplomats attended all hearings in Abu Rahmah’s case. Ashton’s statement was followed by one from the Spanish Parliament.

Renowned South African human right activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called on Israel tooverturn Abu Rahmah’s conviction on behalf of the Elders, a group of international public figures noted as elder statesmen, peace activists, and human rights advocates, brought together by Nelson Mandela. Members of the Elders, including Tutu, have met with Abu Rahmah on their visit to Bil’in prior to his arrest.

International human rights organization Amnesty International condemned Abu Rahmah’s conviction as an assault on the right to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watchdenounced the conviction, pronouncing the whole process “an unfair trial”.

Israeli organizations also distributed statements against the conviction – including a statement by B’Tselem which raises the issue of questionable testimonies by minors used to convict Abu Rahme, and The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) which highlights the impossibility of organizing legal demonstrations for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Legal Background
Abu Rahmah, the coordinator of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was acquitted of two out of the four charges brought against him in the indictment – stone-throwing and a ridiculous and vindictive arms possession charge. According to the indictment, Abu Rahmah collected used tear-gas projectiles and bullet casings shot at demonstrators, with the intention of exhibiting them to show the violence used against demonstrators. This absurd charge is a clear example of how eager the military prosecution is to use legal procedures as a tool to silence and smear unarmed dissent.

The court did, however, find Abu Rahmah guilty of two of the most draconian anti-free speech articles in military legislation: incitement, and organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations. It did so based only on testimonies of minors who were arrested in the middle of the night and denied their right to legal counsel, and despite acknowledging significant ills in their questioning.

The court was also undeterred by the fact that the prosecution failed to provide any concrete evidence implicating Abu Rahmah in any way, despite the fact that all demonstrations in Bil’in are systematically filmed by the army.

Under military law, incitement is defined as “The attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order” (section 7(a) of the Order Concerning Prohibition of Activities of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda (no.101), 1967), and carries a 10 years maximal sentence.