East Jerusalem teens hit with harsh sentences for throwing stones

Jul 20, 2016
Israeli policemen body check Palestinian youth at Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on February 16, 2016. (Photo: AFP / Ahmad Gharabli)

Jerusalem, July 20, 2016—Palestinian youth convicted of throwing stones in Jerusalem are starting to feel the effects of the changes in Israeli legislation and policy guidelines between 2014 and 2015.

On June 13, an Israeli judge sentenced Omar T., Nour al-Din H., and Seif T., all three of them 16 years old, to 26 months in prison. They also received a 12-month suspended sentence for two years after their release.

According to court records retrieved by Defense for Children International - Palestine, a Jerusalem court in March sentenced Saleh E.,16, to 39 months and Murad A.,14, to 36 months in prison. In the same case, Mohammad J.,14, Mohammad T.,17, and Ziad T., 15, were sentenced to 28 months. Yazan A.,15, was sentenced to 14 months while Omar Y.,14, was sentenced to 12 months. All seven also received suspended sentences of 10 months for three years.

According to affidavits taken from two of the teenagers, Saleh E. and Murad A., both had maintained their innocence and confessed only after they had experienced physical and psychological abuse.

“A policeman … took me to a bathroom inside the police station and began beating me hard while I was still handcuffed,” said Saleh E. “He kicked me, and punched me in the face.”

The interrogator accused Saleh E. of throwing stones at Israeli vehicles. “I denied it and told him I was on the way to the mosque to pray with my friends. He began shouting at me … He told me to tell him the truth if I wanted to go home,” said Saleh E. “He then pulled my ear and claimed that my friends ratted on me and said I was throwing stones with them. I told him I threw one stone at the vehicles near the mosque. I told him each one of my friends threw one stone each at the vehicles.”

Murad A. reported a similar experience. In Murad A.’s affidavit, he said he was choked after being handcuffed during his arrest and beaten while handcuffed inside a bathroom.

“[The police officer] took me out of the bathroom, but another police officer slammed the door against my face,” said Murad A.

He too maintained his innocence until further threats. “He began shouting at me and calling me a liar, claiming my friends had already told him I threw stones with them. So, I told him I tried to pick up some stones, but they had already caught me,” Murad A. stated.

Despite the extraction of a confession in a milieu of physical and verbal violence, Salah E. and Murad A. were hit with lengthy sentences. Affidavits from the other teenagers showed the same level of abuse and disregard for due process rights.

“In the past, the average sanction for throwing stones was between two to four months of imprisonment,” said Iyad Misk, director of the Legal Affairs Department at the Palestinian Commission on Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs. “The recent amendments to the Israeli criminal law have a direct impact on the level of sanction on Palestinians from East Jerusalem.”

These sentences come after a series of changes to the Israeli penal code and policy guidelines between 2014 and 2015 to increase customary punishment.

The amendments to the Israeli penal code in 2015 included stricter penalties in mandatory sentencing laws such as a maximum 10 year sentence for throwing a stone, or other object, at traffic, without intent to cause injury, and 20 years for throwing a stone, or other object, at traffic with intent to cause injury. While the 20-year maximum sentencing existed prior to 2015, the word “stone” was added to specifically target Palestinian society.

Minimum penalties for stone-throwing offenses, one-fifth of the maximum penalty, were also added to the penal code. In a controversial decision, the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, added to the scope of punishment the denial of National Insurance benefits to families whose members have been convicted of throwing stones.

According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), proposals are also in the works to impose life sentencing for children under the age of 14.

“It is evident that the changes in legislation and policy disregard the spirit of the Israeli Youth Law, a law which was put in place to bring Israel up to the standards of the Convention of the Rights of the Child,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, Accountability Program director at DCIP. “The changes in the penal code and policy guidelines since 2014 are discriminatory and target Palestinians, specifically youth. Israel is a signatory to the Convention of the Rights of the Child and we call on them to uphold their responsibilities.”

According to ACRI, the Israeli Youth Law was constructed to protect minors from customary punishment and to ensure the legal principles of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as well as Israel’s Basic Law: human dignity and liberty. The CRC explicitly states that only as a last resort should children face incarceration.

ACRI says that as a result of the series of legislative changes and guidelines, the basic principle of the Youth Law has lost its relevance.

“This alarming trend is contrary to the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and erodes the provisions and principles of the Youth Law,” said Nisreen Alyan, an attorney for ACRI.

ACRI outlines in their 2016 report, Arrested Childhood, that the minimum sentencing laws are a determining factor in the length of sentencing for Palestinian youth, despite there being a provision in the Youth Law that should shield them from minimum sentencing laws: “[T]his temporary provision sends a clear sign to judges and to the State Prosecutor’s Office that they should impose stricter sentences on minors suspected of throwing stones. This message has already permeated through into the rulings of the Jerusalem District Court.”

Provisions in the Israeli Youth Law should have steered the sentencing of the court into rehabilitation with minimal incarceration in the cases of Saleh E., Murad A., and other Palestinian children. ACRI argues in their report that section 25(b) of the Israeli Youth Law should protect minors' freedom.

However, the Israeli Supreme Court in several decisions has held that judges have discretion and are not bound by the Israeli Youth Law.

In State of Israel v. Anonymous (2015), the court argued that the recent amendments to the penal code applied to minors, and in this specific case, referenced the minimum sentencing laws as a form of deterrence.

In an earlier case, State of Israel v. Anonymous (2006), the Supreme Court rejected an appeal filed against a sentence of 25 years' imprisonment imposed on a minor. The argument of the appeal relied on Section 25(b) to the Youth Law that stipulates that there is no obligation to impose life imprisonment, mandatory imprisonment, or a minimum penalty on a minor. However, the court upheld the decision and stressed that the legislator's purpose in enacting Section 25(b) of the Youth Law was to broaden the scope of punishments that can be imposed on minors.

Even though the Israeli Youth Law is supposed to safeguard a child’s freedom, acknowledging their protected status, judges are not bound by that body of law in issuing judgments.

In addition to changes in the Israeli penal code to increase customary punishment, Palestinian youth have been impacted by changes in several policy guidelines.

On June 29, 2014, the Israeli government published Decision No. 1776, Strengthening Enforcement in Offenses of Stone Throwing, which according to ACRI, instructed the Ministry of Justice to act to legislate amendments and enact policy guidelines concerning stone throwing, specifically citing the security of East Jerusalem.

This decision was enacted prior to and not in response to the current round of violence, which is most often attributed to the time around both the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the kidnapping and murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khdeir.

In August 2015, the Israeli State Prosecutor’s Office updated the policy guidelines on stone throwing to request that defendants remain in detention until the end of proceedings. According to ACRI, after the change in policy guidelines, requests for detention until the end of the proceedings had risen from 210 requests in 2014 to 310 in 2015.

During these sweeping changes, the guidelines governing the use of live-fire were also updated. According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, in December of 2015 the Israeli police live-fire regulations became much more aggressive. Adalah said the new police regulations give the authority to use live-fire directly on an individual who appears to be throwing or is about to throw a firebomb, shoot off fireworks, or using a sling-shot.

"The new regulations allow officers to act in an unchecked and criminal manner,” said Adalah attorney Mohammad Bassam. “[I]t is clear that the regulations do not refer to just any stone throwers but that they were written specifically regarding Palestinian youths."

DCIP is deeply concerned that these changes to the Israeli penal code and policy guidelines will continue to target Palestinian youth. These changes are almost exclusively applied to Palestinians. Israeli extremists and settlers are rarely prosecuted under the same standards of the law.

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