Shin Bet releases detained Al-Jazeera reporter after 49 days’ imprisonment

How the occupation justice system saved face in the case of Samer Allawi

In his influential book about the occupation circa early 1987, “The Yellow Wind,” David Grossman describes an unusual scene in a military court in the West Bank. The defense shows incontrovertible proof that the defendant cannot possibly be guilty of the crime attributed to him. This causes a problem, which Orwell first expressed in his “To shoot an Elephant”: Acquitting the defendant means the occupier can err, which may cause derision towards him; Convicting him, on the other hand, is a clear travesty which may cause unrest. The judge finds a disingenuous solution: He convicts the defendant of a crime he was not charged of, and sentences him to serve the precise number of days he already did. In this way, an innocent man is freed, but the Occupation does not lose face.

Something of the sort took place two days ago (Monday). Samer Allawi, the head of the Al Jazeera station in Afghanistan, was secretly arrested by the GSS (General Security Service, AKA Shin Bet) at the beginning of August, as tried to cross from the West Bank to Jordan. The case was kept under a partial gag order. The GSS claimed (Hebrew) that there were “strong suspicions” against Allawi, and that “various bodies” are involved in his interrogation, possibly meaning foreign intelligence services, and therefore opposed his release.

Among other issues, Allawi complained he did not receive proper medical treatment, and Physicians for Human Rights appealed on his behalf (Hebrew) to the courts, demanding he be allowed to see an independent physician – which is the right of every prisoner. A representative of PHR told me yesterday that preventing Allawi from receiving medical care, which was criticized by the court as well, looked to them as an attempt to pressure Allawi.

In what is quickly becoming the norm when the GSS tries to break down a prisoner, Allawi was prevented from seeing a lawyer for a period of time after his arrest; his lawyer, Advocate Salim Waqim, told me he was held incommunicado for 13 days. During this time, says Waqim, Allawi was put in a cell with professional informants, who – among other tactics – claimed to be members of terrorist organizations, and threatened to harm him (specifically, tear out his eyes) if he did not tell them his true role. Denying a prisoner access to a lawyer is an effective means of extracting a confession. Allawi was first allowed in court eight days after his arrest; his interrogators had not told him him what he was suspected of, and were reprimanded for this by the court. The usual methods were used: Unreasonably long interrogation sessions, up to 20 hours in length, during which Allawi was cuffed to the chair (which may well be considered to be a form of sleep deprivation), the threat of taking hostages (arresting family members), etc.

Alwai was released on Monday, after being convicted in a plea bargain of conspiring to provide service for an illegal association, namely Hamas. The amended indictment, says Advocate Waqim, charges Allawi of conspiring to maliciously report about US armed forces activity in Afghanistan, thereby causing support for Hamas to rise.

If your brows rose when reading this sentence, you’re not alone. Note the charge of conspiracy – the indictment had to admit this conspiracy did not materialize. One of the two conspiracy charges also noted that Allawi met a Hamas representative during a press conference, which is something journalists, even Israeli ones, do on almost a daily basis. Advocate Waqim noted that Allawi was interrogated almost exclusively about Afghanistan, not his activities in the West Bank. This, along with the comment of the Shin Bet officer, should make us wonder just how much US intelligence was involved in this case (Waqim thought about CIA agents; this looks more like DIA territory to me, but I guess we’ll never know for certain).

Advocate Waqim also said that he was approached by the prosecution on the last day his client was deprived of his right to an attorney, and they offered him the usual Faustian deal: Drop all charges except two minor ones, and letting his client go free – or they could go to court, which may take a couple of years, some of which his client (whose health was in peril, remember) would spend in jail and the rest without ability to work. Waqim protested, said the deal was unfair – and then told his client he should probably take it. This method, of forcing a prisoner to choose between conviction and immediate release or a long trial, much of it spent in jail, is a favorite of the Israeli justice system in the West Bank. Allawi was promptly convicted (Hebrew), and sentenced to the 40+ days he already spent in detention. Waqim told the Israeli press that “the mountain gave birth to a mole, and even it was stillborn.”

The most noteworthy thing here is the fact that Allawi’s status – as a journalist for an international television news network – made sure his case would get plenty of coverage. The average Palestinian detainee, whose arrest (perhaps, given the regular prevention of access to a lawyer, we should write “kidnapping” instead) is laconically reported by the IDF Spokesman every mourning, has no such luck. The injustice in their cases is likely to be greater. Allawi, after all, was released after just six weeks.

And, as these lines are written and Israeli Jews sit down to their holiday dinner, the West Bank is, as it is for every Jewish holiday, under internal curfew – Palestinians can’t move from town to town to visit their families. As in the case of Allawi, most Israelis prefer not to know what is being done in their names.