Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF):
“No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and used only as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period of time.”
I am an avid proponent of international law but it is so discouraging when you witness reoccurring violations. Although I still consider myself a human rights activist, when I attended hearings at Ofer Military Court in Israel, I started to question the law.
Children are one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Their violent arrests in the middle of the night by the Israeli military are not by any means “a measure of last resort.” The imprisonment of children in military prisons is also not for the “shortest appropriate period of time” as they claim.
During my trip to Ofer Military Court, one resilient young boy stuck out to me. His name was Mohammed (name has been changed for confidentiality reasons). I met Mohammed’s parents at my first visit to the military court. Mohammed was subjected to an arrest in the middle of the night from his family home in Hebron. These types of arrests are just one of the ways of instilling fear in the occupied Palestinian population.
No summons or warrants are given to the child so he has the option to turn himself in or have his parents accompany him. Rather, the arrests by the Israeli military are intended to make the child disoriented and psychologically vulnerable before even reaching the interrogation room.
At 3 a.m. on the night of the arrest, the Israeli soldiers told Mohammed’s parents to get him out of bed and informed them that they were taking him away. No reason was given as to why. Can you imagine your child being pulled out of bed at 3 a.m. to be arrested and blindfolded without any explanation of why or where he was being taken?
Sounds more like a legal kidnapping to me.
Mohammed’s parents called Defence for Children International/Palestine Section (DCI), a non-profit organization, to help them locate Mohammed after the arrest. DCI tracked down which prison he was being held at and agreed to represent him as part of their non-profit work.
It was about 9 a.m. when I finally entered the military court and Mohammed’s parents were in the waiting room. They had travelled all morning from Hebron to finally see their son. It had been a week since they had seen or heard from Mohammed.
By 2 p.m. we were all still in the waiting room and by this time, I was hungry and restless.
“They don’t tell you when it is your turn, you will just know when they call his name.”
Finally at 3 p.m. I heard Mohammed’s name. We all stood up and Mohammed’s attorney, who was also the attorney I was observing, called me over to the makeshift courtroom. I walked in and heard someone yelling in Hebrew, only to realize the soldiers were pointing at me. The attorney told them that I was with him, but as I sat at the front of the gallery I heard yelling again. Apparently, I was not allowed to sit in the first row, but had to sit in the second or third row. My guess is this is a tactic to make the parents and children feel even more vulnerable by making sure they aren’t near to one other.
All of a sudden, I saw this small young body with his legs and hands in shackles walk into the courtroom. I was shocked at how tiny and fragile Mohammed looked. All I could hear were the cries of his mother as he was brought into the room and I had to hold back the tears prickling my eyes.
The hearing was all in Hebrew and for the first five minutes I did not understand a word. The military translator walked in late and began translating only some parts of what was said. He would translate for a few minutes then walk out and socialise with a co-worker while the hearing went on. It was like some sort of a sick joke to him. It was obvious he had no incentive to translate because either way he wasn’t going to lose his job.
“To have the free assistance of an interpreter.”
I thought back to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know whether to cry, scream, laugh or yell. How could the military court system in Israel, the only so-called ‘democracy’ in the whole of the Middle East, be subjecting these people to such cruelty? And why was I the only one who seemed bothered by it?
Under Israeli military law, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 12 years old. Mohammed was being charged with throwing stones at a military vehicle and if convicted would typically receive a sentence of a few months in prison. Having said this, under Israeli military law the sentence could be anywhere from several months to several years.
Mohammed pleaded not guilty. The hearing did not last more than ten minutes because the prosecutor suddenly remembered there was a video of the alleged crime. The DCI attorney told his parents that the hearing would be rescheduled for the week after so the new evidence could be reviewed and Mohammed was escorted outside the courtroom once again in his leg shackles and handcuffs.
“Mohammed!” his mother called out to him, “Be strong, you will be fine and do not talk to anyone about anything.”
Mohammed nodded and turned away.
Many children are convicted because of the confessions of other children in prison. These confessions are squeezed out of the children who cannot take the pressure of being in prison, and more often than not one can assume they are false allegations taken from traumatized Palestinian children. In a system that denies bail for 87% of child cases and has a conviction rate of 99.74%, at least 90% of children eventually plead guilty even if they are in fact innocent.
A week later, we are back in court and there is 12-year old Mohammed again with that boyish smile and tiny hands and legs in shackles. It is then revealed to us that there was no video evidence to be reviewed. This was probably just another tactic to prolong detention and put pressure on the child to plead guilty.
Mohammed’s mother and father were not in court this time because his mother was in hospital and so the only family he had present was his uncle. The family could not afford to post his bail or pay the fine if their son were to plead guilty and so the only option was to keep Mohammed in prison until his lawyer could find a way of getting him out. The patience, resistance, and resilience of this 12-year old child was extraordinary and I couldn’t believe he could still manage a smile in court despite what was happening.
How could a ‘democratic’ country like Israel expect peace with the Palestinians when they treat their children in this way?
The hearing I witnessed was supposedly in a military youth court. From what I could see, there was nothing youthful about it.
While the military youth court is an example of what should be in place, not much has changed since its establishment. It has not been established in a manner that is consistent with international law. The Committee on the Convention of the Rights of the Child states that all professionals involved in the administration of juvenile justice should be knowledgeable about child development. Israel’s juvenile military court does not provide separate facilities or staff from the adult one. The youth court is not qualified to deal with matters of the detention of children. It seems to me like the existence of a youth court is just a public show from Israel.
UNICEF’s recent announcement that the Israeli military has agreed to not arrest children in the middle of the night is certainly welcomed, but just like the juvenile court, I think we need to wait and see if this is actually done.
After this experience in court, I left feeling shocked, overwhelmed, depressed and motivated all at the same time. How could my country, the United States, be giving billions of dollars of military aid to Israel when they do not treat children in a way that would suffice for international standards?
This experience really made me rethink my role as an advocate of human rights and how important it is to share the story of my experiences. Until today, the image of Mohammed’s smile in court still haunts me, because while this was only one child’s story, can you imagine how many other Palestinian children are subjected to such cruelty and humiliation?