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The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on Sunday released 17 protesters without charges, following their arrest two days earlier during a demonstration in east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
One of the detainees was Hagai El-Ad, the executive-director of The Association for Civil Rights (ACRI) in Israel.
In its ruling, the court stated that even though the assembly had been unlawful, "the circumstances of the event do not justify arresting the detainees on the grounds that they posed a danger just because they refused to disperse, when the police did not prove to the court that there was a need to disperse them.
"The protesters' release came hours after some 150 people held a protest vigil outside Jerusalem's Russian Compound, demanding the activists be set free. During the hearing, the protesters' lawyers contended that the arrests and the crackdown on the protest were part of efforts to stifle dissent and freedom of speech.
A spokesperson for ACRI told The Jerusalem Post
that the organization had
not initiated the demonstration, but that El-Ad and other members attended it in order to monitor the conduct of Jerusalem police towards the protesters, not to demonstrate against Jewish settlement in Sheikh Jarrah.
The spokesperson said ACRI had received complaints about police conduct during protests for months before Friday's arrests. On Friday, when El-Ad approached officers to complain about the arrest of protesters, he was himself detained, the spokesperson said, adding that it was the first time a member of ACRI had ever been arrested at a protest.
On Sunday, El-Ad told The Post
that he attended the rally as part of ACRI's "efforts to protect freedom of speech," adding that although the organization was not behind the vigil, on a personal level he sympathized with its organizers, calling what is going on in Sheikh Jarrah "a moral outrage."
El-Ad said that he believes the police arrested him because they thought he was one of the organizers of the protest, because he had approached them to tell them that their efforts to silence the vigil were illegal. El-Ad said he believes his arrest is merely part of the ongoing efforts on the part of police to intimidate protesters in Sheikh Jarrah, citing the over 70 demonstrators who have been arrested there in recent weeks. In a press release Sunday, ACRI warned that the arrests were "part of a worrying trend on the part of the authorities to limit freedom of demonstration and arrest demonstrators under false or illegitimate pretenses."
On Sunday, the New Israel Fund (NIF) issued a statement slamming the arrest of the protesters, saying that "a disturbing pattern of police intimidation is beginning to emerge."
The statement quotes NIF Head Daniel Sokatch as saying that the arrest of activists like El-Ad "only serve to remind us how critical it is that we continue - and indeed redouble - our support for their efforts."
Demonstrations have been held in the neighborhood each week for the past three months, to protest the eviction of Arab families from their homes and the takeover of the homes by Jewish settlers.
In 2008, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that property in Sheikh Jarrah that was part of the former Jewish neighborhood "Shimon Hatzadik" belonged to the Sephardic Community Committee, paving the way for Jewish settlers to oust the Arab families. In August 2009, two Palestinian families were evicted from two homes in Sheikh Jarrah, Jewish settlers moved in, and protests have rocked the neighborhood ever since.
ACRI's Chief Legal Counsel Dan Yakir criticized the police contention that by using megaphones, the protesters had turned the event into one in which political speeches were made, which would be illegal without a permit.
"The police claim...is absurd, and it is one which has been dismissed on previous occasions," he said. "The law referred to was intended to broadly allow demonstrations, and therefore it is clear that the arrests were carried out unlawfully".
Meanwhile, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also condemned the arrests, with Executive Director Anthony D. Romero saying "while we take no position on domestic issues within Israel, we are deeply concerned that one of Israel's top human rights' leaders has been detained for peaceably expressing his views."
Following the arrests, Jerusalem police said that the demonstration was led by "anarchists and leftists" who did not follow police orders and that if they continued to take part in illegal protests, they should expect to be arrested.