Ramallah, February 5, 2016—An Israeli military court sentenced five Palestinian teens accused of manslaughter to 15-year sentences pursuant to a plea bargain on January 28 after nearly three years of pretrial detention and despite numerous fair trial violations.
Mohammad Klaib, Ali Shamlawi, Mohammad Suleiman, Tamer Sof and Ammar Sof, all aged 16 when arrested by Israeli forces in March 2013 following a stone throwing incident, were held in solitary confinement, denied access to counsel, and repeatedly interrogated in the days following arrest. The boys were each charged with 20 counts of attempted murder, among other charges. The 15-year sentences were issued following payment of NIS 30,000 (US $7,720) in fines in accordance with a plea agreement that the teens accepted.
"The Israeli military court system is not a justice system,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, Accountability Program director at Defense for Children International Palestine (DCIP). “A system interested in justice does not place children in solitary confinement, subject them to prolonged interrogation sessions, deny them access to counsel, and prosecute them relying on statements obtained through coercion.”
All five teens, known as the “Haris boys”, were accused of throwing stones at a truck near Ariel, a Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank, causing a traffic accident in which a three-year-old Israeli girl was seriously injured. The toddler, Adele Biton, died nearly two years later in February 2015 from pneumonia-related complications.
Shamlawi told DCIP in a sworn testimony that he confessed to throwing stones under duress while held in solitary confinement, beaten and intimidated. Klaib told DCIP that while held in isolation, Israeli guards denied him food in an apparent attempt to obtain a confession. “I asked him [the interrogator] to bring me some food before interrogation because I was very hungry,” said Klaib. “He said to me, ‘Confess now and I'll bring you food. But if you don't, I don't really mind starving you to death.’”
From the moment of arrest, the five teens experienced ill-treatment, including physical violence, at the hands of Israeli forces. Tamer Sof told DCIP in a sworn testimony that an Israeli soldier “pushed me so hard that my face slammed against the wall and my mouth and my nose started bleeding.” In his sworn testimony, Mohammad Suleiman said Israeli soldiers physically assaulted him in front of four other detained children until he confessed to throwing stones and later, threatened him with sodomy.
The case received extensive press coverage inside Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu branded stone throwing as an act of terror, saying “stones are lethal weapons.” While the then Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for the Israeli army’s rules of engagement to be changed to allow them to open fire on stone-throwers.
Three other Palestinian children whom Israeli authorities detained, but later released, in connection with the incident were also held in solitary confinement and denied access to an attorney for two or more days.
All five teens confessed to throwing stones during interrogation while they were held in solitary confinement and denied access to counsel. Despite these fair trial violations and serious concerns that the confessions were obtained through coercion or torture, Israeli military courts accepted incriminating statements as evidence.
Between 2012 and 2015, DCIP documented 66 cases involving the solitary confinement of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system. The use of isolation by Israeli authorities does not appear to be related to any disciplinary, protective, or medical rationale or justification and is not generally used after children have been convicted and begun serving their sentences.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has asserted that when “used intentionally during pretrial detention as a technique for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession,” solitary confinement amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
“Our experience with the military courts is no different than any other Palestinian family in the West Bank,” Shamlawi’s mother told DCIP. “Justice is absent. Regarding Ali's case, it was only his confession obtained through harsh interrogation that linked him with the charges.”
In addition to the 15-year sentence and the fine, the plea agreement also includes two suspended sentences for each teen. A suspended sentence is similar to a probationary period, but allows the military court to impose a mandatory minimum custodial sentence if a person commits a separate, additional offense within the time period specified in the suspended sentence.
Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes between 500 and 700 children in military courts each year. Ill-treatment in the Israeli military detention system is widespread, systematic, and institutionalized with three out of four Palestinian child detainees experiencing physical violence during arrest or interrogation.