For asylum seekers in Israel, the police is the judiciary

A new government regulation enables the indefinite incarceration of refugees suspected of committing crimes, even if there is not enough evidence to indict them. Were this regulation applied to Israeli politicians, many of them would be in prison.

By Asaf Weitzen

The upcoming elections will affect not only the lives of Israeli citizens, they will also affect the fates of more than 60,000 African immigrants living here. Ignorance regarding the circumstances of their arrival to Israel, along with fear and rare bureaucratic creativity, have led to a series of laws and regulations depriving them of their most basic legal protections, which were provided to them in the past.

For example, take A., an Eritrean citizen who has been living in Israel for several years. Since the authorities recognized that A.’s life would be in danger were he to be deported, he was given a permit to stay in the country. In a different country, he would have long been recognized as a refugee. Several weeks ago, A. was taken in for questioning following a dispute with a neighbor. After the police determined that there was insufficient evidence to take him to court, he was taken to the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev, where it was made clear to him that he is an “infiltrator.” He has been in custody ever since, with no possibility for release.

A.’s incarceration is made possible due to a regulation recently released by the interior and justice ministries, which states that “infiltrators involved in criminal activity” will be imprisoned without trial for an unlimited period, even if evidence is lacking for an indictment. The regulation also states that people who completed their sentences will remain in prison, and can be sent back to jail if they had already been released.

If we also consider the breaching of the criminal sentencing scale – since in such cases the sentence for someone suspected of stealing food becomes identical to that of a convicted murderer – we end up with a regulation that not only breaks new records in its abusive treatment of African immigrants, but also in the willingness of the state to violate the most basic rules of the game, simply in order to “make their lives unbearable,” in the words of Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

Ironically, it is the justice minister, who is able to serve in his position only after criminal proceedings against him ended in an acquittal, and the minister of interior, whose co-party leader has served a prison term, who are together crushing the criminal process. It is ironic because had the procedure been applied to Ya’akov Neeman and Aryeh Deri, they themselves would have been imprisoned for acts that were attributed to them just a few years ago.

When the police is authorized to act not only as an enforcement agency but also as the judiciary, the notion of separation of powers collapses and Israeli democracy – which already leaves something to be desired – suffers yet another blow. It could be only a matter of time before the temptation to deny legal status to other groups, to enable their control by an almighty police, will overcome any opposition.

It is therefore essential that candidates in the upcoming primary elections say up front where they stand with regards to asylum seekers in Israel. Whether they will make efforts to protect them, while refusing to sit in a coalition that keeps producing laws and policies whose stated purpose is to make life impossible for African migrants, while at the same time dismantling the fundamental principles of Israeli law.

We would like to hear from the more progressive candidates what measures will be taken in order to increase the recognition rate of refugees in Israel – which now stands at barely a quarter of a percent – to that of the average rate in the world, which is a hundred times higher. Perhaps, given the current political climate, this is not a simple request, but in the absence of a clear and honest answer, what’s the point of the coming elections, beyond than the symbolic act of casting a ballot?

Asaf Weitzen is an attorney at the Hotline for Migrant WorkersThis article was originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz and was translated by Ronnie Barkan.

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