HA'ARETZ (English Edition)
Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Nurit Wurgaft

Political prisoners and deportation police

Foreign workers in Ma'asiyahu Prison. Arrest until deportation is the rule, and release on bail is unusual. Photo: Nir Kafri
Photo: Nir Kafri
Foreign workers in Ma'asiyahu Prison. Arrest until deportation is the rule, and release on bail is unusual.

At a meeting held in Tel Aviv last week between religious leaders of the African foreign worker community and Israel's deportation police, one of the clergymen raised a painful subject. "Would it perhaps be possible to do away with the practice of leading our people away with shackles on their feet?" he asked. "The handcuffs are reasonable, but the shackled feet are associated in our collective memory with the slave hunters that persecuted our ancestors."

His request was denied. As far as the deportation police — the body recently set up under the title of "Immigration Police," although its sole task is to deport tens of thousands of foreign workers from Israel — are concerned, this does not constitute a violation of any law or standard procedure. "When a person is arrested, the law obligates us to use cuffs, both on hands and feet, and we will continue to do so," says assistant spokesman of the deportation police Orit Friedman.

In general, the deportation police are pleased with the unit's accomplishments in its first few weeks of operation. They deny all charges that the department bungled some deportations. According to its own data, provided by spokesman Ofer Lefler, 691 individuals were arrested in the first months of the campaign, 475 of whom have already been deported. Only one complaint has been submitted to the Police Investigation Division (PID) of the Justice Ministry; even this was not about behavior of policemen during an arrest, but about violence in the police lockup. Astonishing.

A slightly less superficial investigation shows that the dearth of complaints does not necessarily point to exemplary behavior of the police, but rather to fear, despair and a sense of helplessness among the deportees. "Since the campaign began, the police have been chasing after people with drawn guns, something that you didn't have before," relates one activist in the African community. "In one of the chases," he says, "two men were running away, and the police were chasing them. They pulled out their guns and shouted in English, 'Stop or we'll shoot." One of them stopped and the other one kept on running, but they didn't shoot. He was lucky."

Denying their rights

The fact that they have not complained should come as no surprise. According to statements of foreign workers who were arrested, in the course of the interviews conducted as part of the deportation procedure they were asked about their employer's outstanding debts to them, but not about how they were treated by the policemen who arrested them. Nor did anyone inform them of their rights when they were in the police lockup, or about the procedure for submitting a complaint.

Hamoked (the Center for the Defense of the Individual) is a non-profit group that provides assistance to foreign workers. The organization has been involved in many of the individual cases, and unlike the police, has heard numerous complaints about the police. Hamoked is expecting a wave of complaints as soon as people recover from the initial shock of the deportation campaign. Based on partial data amassed among the first 477 workers to be arrested, at least eight reported violence committed by policemen to Hamoked. Eighteen were arrested even though they claimed to have visas, and eight were arrested although they had refugee status, either recognized or pending. Six were very ill or injured at the time of their arrest — which did not prevent their arrest. Similarly, five men were arrested even though their wives were in advanced stages of pregnancy and as a result, could not board a plane. The deportation of the men means that the husbands and wives will be forcibly separated around the time of birth.

And then there is the particularly serious story of two single-parent fathers raising their children alone, both of whom sat in jail for a week without knowing where their children were. The Israel Police have clear instructions not to arrest parents of single-parent families if their arrest is liable to lead to neglect of a child. This did not disturb the police team in Tel Aviv from arresting a Nigerian clergyman as he left his church, while holding his year-and-a-half-old daughter in his arms. Eyewitnesses later told the director of Hamoked, Sigal Rosen, that the police ignored his protests. Although he said the child's mother was already in Nigeria and that his daughter had no one else but him, he was arrested and held in jail for a week until his release.

On the same day that the Nigerian priest was arrested, another single-parent father was arrested — a foreign worker from Ghana who is raising his four-year-old son. He too was held for a week without knowing where his son was. Upon his release, he needed the police's help in locating the child.

The response of the deportation police to these incidents was forgiving; it was explained that they were mistakes that could be attributed to the inexperience of junior policemen. They cited the assistance they had given the priest from Ghana in finding his son. Violence, says spokesman Lefler, is also uncharacteristic. "Policemen are required to report every out-of-the-ordinary incident, including beatings," he says. Street chases and drawn guns, he says, are most certainly improper. "If it did happen, a complaint should be made, and the complaint will be investigated."

Yet it is doubtful if any of those arrested while being threatened with a pistol will accept the challenge. Experience has taught them how ineffective it is to submit a complaint against the police. In the past two years, Hamoked has submitted 14 complaints on behalf of foreign workers to the Justice Ministry's Police Investigation Division. Nine complaints concerned violence, and the others were about a variety of matters, including breaking in to an apartment without showing the residents a court order, disappearance of personal possessions from the police station (a recurrent complaint), maltreatment of an individual who refused to serve as an informer, and refusal of policemen to help a woman found working for an escort service, even though she plaintively asked for help.

The Justice Ministry denies the allegations. The office of the spokesman responded that these complaints are usually handled as quickly as possible, in spite of the unique difficulties that arise "since there are times when the witnesses refuse to testify, especially when these witnesses reside in Israel illegally." Ministry sources said that three of the complaints about violence were sent on to the public complaints unit for disciplinary action, one was closed for lack of criminal behavior, two were still under investigation, and three were closed because the complainants had left the country or refused to cooperate with the investigation.

Attorney Michal Pinchuk of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) says that the cases prove that mass deportations will unavoidably cause serious damage to civil rights, and therefore cannot be a solution for the problem of the aliens. She said that a proposal made by leaders of the Africans, under which the workers would receive an extension in order to properly arrange their affairs and then leave Israel of their own free will, could serve as a basis for negotiations.

Separate laws

Ostensibly, armed with the amendment to the Entry to Israel Law, which came into effect in July 2002, the two single-parent fathers could have demanded to be brought before the custody court after their arrest, although they had no way of knowing that. The fact is that not a single one of the 700 arrested foreigners has asked to realize this right — even though some of them have been held unlawfully.

An appeal to the High Court of Justice by ACRI and Hamoked describes the custody court as a shadowy body. According to the petition, which was submitted in July and is to be heard in November, the court does not officially publicize when it is in session; it has no address or fax number through which a lawyer representing a foreign worker can lodge a request, and there is no set procedure for an application by a foreign worker to the court. Until now, the court has operated without any interpreter.

The petitioners allege that the amendment essentially created a separate and unique system of laws for foreign workers that differ from the laws of the state. This deals a heavy blow to their human rights. For instance, ACRI and Hamoked allege that whereas in the criminal realm, a suspect is not ordinarily held under arrest until the end of legal procedures, and release on bail or house arrest is the norm, for foreign workers, the situation is the opposite: arrest until deportation is the rule, and release on bail is unusual.

Ever since the deportation police were established, and even more so since the start of the mass deportation campaign, a fundamental disagreement has divided the groups that provide assistance to foreign workers. How should they relate to the mere idea of deportation? Some argue that deportation of an entire population cannot by its very nature be moral or right, and that they must not grant it legitimacy. Others feel that the state is entitled to restrict the number of aliens living within its boundaries, and if left with no other choice, it can deport people. Yet all parties concur that carrying out mass deportations cannot be sustained at the same time as the basic rights and dignity of the deportees is upheld.

Copyright 2002 Ha`aretz. All rights reserved.

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Created: October 8, 2002
Last modified: October 8, 2002
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