Harsh prison sentence for Eritrean in order to ‘deter foreigners’

By Noam Wiener

The Tel Aviv District Court, roughly comparable to a circuit court in the American federal system, sentenced on Wednesday an Eritrean refugee convicted of aggravated robbery to four and a half years imprisonment. Explaining the harsh sentence, he cited the need to deter “foreign citizens” from committing crimes.

Without detracting from the brutality of the individuals who attacked refugee shops and cars last week, this is a far more insidious form of racism. And if anybody was so deluded into thinking that only the less fortunate lower classes are so racist, Judge Zvi Gurfinkel has proven that the virus of racism against African refugees is firmly ingrained in the system.

According to the court (Hebrew), the defendant, Kabri Angsom, is an Eritrean national residing in Israel as an asylum seeker. Angsom, according to the verdict, pushed a woman to the ground, punched her and stole her purse. Such an offense, according to the court, usually carries a punishment of between three and four years’ incarceration.

But instead of reiterating the facts and meting out the sentence, as judges usually do, Judge Gurfinkel took another direction in his decision. Instead of punishing Angsom for his crime, the judge described the danger posed by “foreign laborers, refugees, or work immigrants,” choosing to make him an example to other “foreign citizens.”

As Judge Gurfinkel explains, “not a week passes by without a foreign citizen coming before the court because of robbery or other violent offenses.” In light of the danger of the “foreign citizens,” the judge recommends increasing the punishment in “cases like this” to between four and six years, and sentences Angsom to 56 months in prison.

General deterrence in punishment is complex enough when dealing with “everyday” criminals. There is something fundamentally wrong with turning an individual, even a criminal, into an instrument to deter the general public from committing potential future crimes. For more on the shaky ground on which this justification for punishment stands, check out Andrei Vyshinsky’s legacy and see how that worked out for the Soviets in the 1930s.

But Judge Gurfinkel goes much further than general deterrence in his verdict. He does not punish Angsom to deter the general public, only “foreign citizens.” And the judge is not referring to French tourists on the beaches of Netanya.

In other words, Angsom’s sentence was lengthened because of his ethnicity. No matter how you try to spin it, the judge unabashedly explains he determined Angsom’s sentence not only by his actions, but by the propensity of the group to which he belongs to commit crimes.

Even if the claim that the refugees are responsible for more crimes than the general population were empirically correct (which it is not), this type of profiling is terribly, terribly immoral. Imagine an Israeli judge sentencing a Mizrahi to a particularly severe sentence, claiming that Mizrahis statistically commit more crimes, or an American judge daring to justify the sentence of an African American based on the color of his or her skin. This is the very definition of racism – the determination of someone’s fate based on his or her race.

The racism of the mob that beat up an Ethiopian Jew in south Tel Aviv yesterday, assuming he was a refugee, is ugly. But the racism of this judge in his air-conditioned chambers is of a much more “cultured” variety, and so much more dangerous – it has the power and the legitimacy of the institution.

Noam Wiener is an Israeli doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. His research focuses on international criminal law.