The ongoing saga of Prisoner E: Two years of incarceration without a conviction

An 18 year old Jewish boy sits alone in his jail cell, prayed the Rosh Hashanah prayers by himself and then blew the shofar on his own. Daily, he sits mere meters away from where other Jewish prisoners gather to pray in a minyan and to hear words of Torah and inspiration from visiting rabbis, but he is not permitted to talk with them nor interact with them in any way. In fact, he has essentially been in solitary confinement for over a year. These are just examples of the difficult conditions under which he is being held.

Many people view as fundamental the right to a speedy trial and to being treated as “innocent until proven guilty”. In addition, most law-abiding citizens have little exposure to the judicial and penal systems and like to believe that these and other similar rights are upheld in Israel. The ongoing saga of E tells a woefully different tale. In the summer of 2015 E, at the time a minor, and thus his name is still not public, was placed under house arrest in his community in the Shomron. No explanation nor legal justification was given for this Administrative Order. After three and a half months in which his movement was severely restricted and, during which, it turns out, the Israeli security services were bugging the house, the landline, and both parents’ personal cell phones, he was arrested. His interrogation was carried out in the Shabak dungeons using what the government terms “special interrogation methods” and what he later described as torture. At the end of the protracted, difficult month of interrogation, during which he was held in complete isolation, in darkness so that he could not tell night from day, fed lies about his family’s physical and mental state, denied the right to meet with an attorney or any other objective figure and suffered verbal, mental, and physical abuse, the investigators had extracted from him several confessions. Some of these confessions, the investigators have themselves admitted were actually false confessions, while others they are planning to use to prosecute him.

It should be expected that in short order there would be a trial in which E would either be freed or be sentenced. That has not happened. The charges against him are serious. He is accused of membership in a terrorist organization and this has earned for him the rare “privilege” of being one of three Jews being held by the prison services who are classified by them as “terrorists”. He is held in a maximum security wing in which his neighbors are heads of mafia organizations who have been convicted of mob hits and other such violent crimes. This young man, actually a child when he was arrested, has had extremely limited contact with his parents for over a year. They are permitted to speak to him only once a week for half an hour through a glass barrier with supervision. Once a month the glass barrier is opened but supervision is close at hand.

During these nearly two years, one might have expected a trial. But it seems that to get to that point involves many many other steps, all of which take time, and during this whole time, E has been kept under harsh conditions. There seems to be no more gathering of evidence nor other investigation going on and it seems that all that the prosecution has on him is his “confession”. The measly “evidence” gathered during the bugging of his house has been presented in court and is trivial to the point of comical. What has been going on ever since the interrogation is legal wrangling. For example, before the actual trial, a panel of three judges is going to have to decide if the confession extracted is admissible as evidence because it was obtained under extreme duress. (Note that last week the Beer Sheva district court ignored a confession extracted by the Shin Bet and thus acquitted an Arab accused of a terror plot.)This calls for a “pretrial trial” known as a “mishpat zuta”. In order for the judges to decide that issue, the Shabak interrogators testified and then E was to testify in his own defense. Common sense would dictate that E would prepare for trial by meeting with his attorney. The prosecution argued that E is being held as a terrorist and terrorists may not meet with an attorney in private; only through a glass barrier with supervision. The tug of war between the prosecution, who demanded that he not meet with his lawyer in private, and E’s attorney, demanding to meet with his client privately, ate up three months. In the end, the Bagatz sided with the prosecution and thus, this minor, who has no legal training, was forced to prepare for his defense through a glass barrier, with the prosecution obviously listening to every word exchanged between counsel and client.

The prosecution has maintained throughout that E is dangerous. Therefore he is kept under the strictest of conditions, spending the vast majority of his time alone in his cell. This follows on the exceedingly difficult first month of his incarceration in which the prosecution has conceded that he was denied sleep and interrogated with particularly harsh methods. After that period he had remained in the youth wing for a time and his parents were able to arrange for a psychiatrist of their choice to meet with him. His evaluation was that E was suffering from severe PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder). In E’s current situation, he is no longer permitted a visit by any outside physician and is not being provided mental health treatment. The judicial establishment of the State of Israel has unfortunately seriously psychologically harmed this young man and while the hope is that he will eventually be rehabilitated and be a productive member of society, that journey will not be easy.

As noted, the State seems to have little evidence other than the extracted confessions yet seems fiercely determined to convict E. The current charges against him include involvement in the planning of the Duma attack. The protracted judicial process and harsh prison conditions have resulted in numerous expensive (both to his family and the taxpayer) legal jousts between E and the prison services. His parents have had to turn to political and other influential people and point out the absurdity of a youngster with no criminal background who has not been convicted being treated worse than convicted Palestinian terrorists, and only then did he receive some relief.

This strong desire on the part of the government to see E prosecuted, particularly in light of the fact that several of the other youths arrested and interrogated at the same time were released for lack of evidence, is hard to understand. Even more difficult to understand is the way the case is being handled, both in terms of the protracted legal proceedings and his particularly harsh prison conditions.  One reason they have been able to get away with this is that most of the Israeli public remembers the firebombing in Duma, the arrests and the initial outcry over the harsh interrogation techniques and now assumes that the criminal justice system did its job, found the bad guys, and case closed. Unfortunately it is not so simple. It is not so clear that the perpetrators have been found, and it is very clear that the case is not closed, and that a young Jewish boy who may very well be completely innocent and his family are continuing to suffer. Where is the outcry from the human rights organizations? The child protective service organizations? The political parties that claim to represent his sector of the population? E has been rotting in a prison cage for almost two years. It is past time that he be treated fairly, that his conditions be eased, and that the case move forward at a reasonable pace.

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in his regular column (now running 20 years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action and in Mishpacha magazine.
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