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Three months ago today, in the early hours of March, 17 2013, Israeli soldiers appeared at 16-year- old Ali Shamlawi’s house in the West Bank village of Hares. They blindfolded him, handcuffed him and took him away. His arrest was one of a spate of arrests in March of this year which saw 19 boys, aged 16 and 17 years old, arrested for throwing stones which were alleged to have caused a traffic accident on Route 5, a large road which cuts through the West Bank to service illegal Israeli settlements.
Hares is a village of 4,000 people south of the city of Nablus in the West Bank. Illegal Israeli settlements – including Ariel, the second-largest settlement in the West Bank – have been built on agricultural land confiscated from Hares. The traffic accident in question occurred on March 14 when a car carrying a mother and her three daughters from Ariel crashed into the back of a truck on Route 5 near Hares, after the truck had braked suddenly. The youngest daughter was critically injured in the crash. The driver of the truck initially attributed the sudden breaking to a flat tire but later claimed he braked suddenly when stones hit his truck.
Locals who were at the scene of the accident moments after it occurred were interviewed by the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS) and reported that they did not see any youth in the vicinity. However in the weeks since the accident, 61 witnesses from surrounding illegal settlements have come forward claiming their cars were also damaged by stones thrown by Palestinian youth from the side of the road. These settlers claim that Palestinian boys were 5-10 metres from the side of the road but these allegations have never been verified by the extensive CCTV footage in the area.
Since the initial arrests, 14 of the Palestinian boys have been released. However, five boys, including Ali Shamlawi, remain in prison three months later. Along with the other boys, Ali is being charged with 25 separate counts of attempted murder (one for each individual stone he allegedly threw) and is facing 25 years to life imprisonment.
Last Thursday on June 13th, Ali was in court again for his sixth hearing. Having applied to attend the hearing in advance, I was informed the night before that permission had not been granted because it would be a closed hearing – something all too common in Israeli military courts. Ali’s lawyers have since confirmed that at the hearing his detention was extended to July 25th in order for the defense team to be able to consider all evidence being used against him.
Along with the 61 “witnesses” mentioned above, the prosecution’s evidence consists of confessions from the boys. The lawyers and NGOs working on the case insist that these confessions were forced under extreme duress and are therefore inadmissible. 16-year-old Ali was held in solitary confinement for two weeks after his arrest and denied access to a lawyer for the first few days. He was interrogated for up to 20 hours at a time and beaten. Until last week, he was also denied visitation from his family. Ali’s lawyers submitted a complaint on May 15th about the circumstances of his interrogation and torture but are still waiting to hear back from the military police investigation.
Interviews carried out by IWPS with some of the boys already released by Israel show further mistreatment of children in custody. One of the 19 boys arrested was hospitalised after being beaten by interrogators, while another reports being kept alone in a small cell where bright lights shone continuously and being threatened with harm to him and his family. Indeed, such allegations come on the heels of a February 2013 report by UNICEF which firmly concluded that “the ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the [Israeli] military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalised throughout the process…”
It is not just the treatment of these children during interrogation that should raise questions. Despite being only 16 years old, Ali is being tried as an adult in Israeli military court; while illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civil law, Palestinians living in the same area are subject to strict Israeli military law. Under this law, Palestinian youth can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for throwing stones at vehicles. Twenty years in prison for throwing stones would be considered harsh in even some of the world’s strictest regimes, but this case sets an even more dangerous precedent: the Israeli courts are charging these five boys not with stone-throwing but with attempted murder.
If the sentence is passed, this case could set a legal precedent which would allow the Israeli military to try any Palestinian youth with attempted murder for incidents of stone-throwing. While the evidence against the boys is tenuous at best (and downright illegal at worst), statistics on conviction rates in Israeli military courts do not bode well for the boys. According to a 2010 internal IDFreport, the military court system used to try Palestinians has a 99.7% conviction rate (In 2010, that meant only 25 full acquittals out of 9,542 cases).These highly troubling statistics expose the discrimination inherent in the Israeli judicial system when compared with similar statistics on settler attacks on Palestinians. A 2011 UN OCHA report revealed that over 90% of monitored complaints of settler violence filed by Palestinians with the Israeli police were closed without indictment.
With conviction rates of almost 100%, allegations of torture against children, and systematic discrimination against Palestinians, it is high time that Israel is held to account for the violations of international law endemic to its military detention and judicial systems.
For now, Ali must wait until July 25th to appear in court again, not knowing whether he will spend the rest of his life behind bars. This case has until now received little media attention. But for those of us who respect due process and human rights, it is time to speak up.
Addameer, IWPS and Defence for Children International are working with Ali’s lawyers on this case.