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Opponents of a government bill severely restricting the rights of non-resident security suspects during their detention by the Shin Bet tried on Thursday to persuade the chairman of the Knesset Law Committee to stop preparing its final draft.
The Justice Ministry and the defense establishment, which are applying heavy pressure to pass the bill immediately, say that it is necessary because disengagement and the end of military law in the Gaza Strip has left a vacuum in the fight against terrorism.
Committee chairman Michael Eitan said he was only prepared to pass a temporary law for three months, long enough for the new Knesset to decide what to do with the government's proposal. Eitan said he had no choice but to pass some kind of interim legislation, because he had promised the government he would do so and because he believed it was necessary.
Only one other MK, Etti Livni (Hetz), attended the meeting, but the chamber was packed with opponents of the bill. They argued that it was one thing for such harsh restrictions on human rights to be included in the orders of the military commander of Gaza, and something totally different to pass them into law.
Until now, the law dealing with the detention of Gazans suspected of terrorism came in the form of an order issued by the military commanders of Gaza and the West Bank. Disengagement brought an end to the military government and the laws passed by it. Security officials warned that unless the law regarding the detention of Gazan security suspects was incorporated into legislation, they would have a hard time coping with the terrorist threat from Gaza.
The bill differentiates between the restrictions imposed on security suspects who are Israeli residents and those who are not, applying only to the latter. According to the proposal, non-resident security suspects may be held for 96 hours without being brought before a judge. The limit for Israeli residents is 24 hours, or 48 hours in situations requiring urgent action by the authorities. Non-Israeli residents may be remanded in custody for 20 days at a time, or a total of 40 days altogether, before requiring the approval of the attorney-general for further remand, compared with two 15-day periods for Israeli residents.
According to the bill, if the judge does not grant the full allotment of 20 days requested by the authorities, they may return to the court and ask to extend the remand for the full period in the absence of the suspect. Suspects will also not attend hearings held to reconsider the court's remand decision or appeals against it. All Israeli resident security suspects are entitled to attend all court hearings.
The state explained that the reason for this amendment was that suspects take advantage of their right to attend court procedures to break up the continuity of their interrogations, which helps them withstand the pressure of the interrogators.
According to the government bill, all non-resident security suspects can be barred from seeing a lawyer for 50 days. Israeli resident security suspects may see a lawyer after 21 days at the latest.
The bill was passed in first reading on October 31. On the eve of Thursday's Law Committee meeting, a group of 25 professors and lecturers wrote to the MKs urging them not to support the bill which "seriously damages the most basic norms in our judicial system and the basic principles of criminal procedure."
Yehudit Karp, a former deputy state attorney, argued that the law denied the civil rights of suspects. "It will be a disgrace on the Israeli statute book," she said.
Yuval Shani, an expert on international law from the Faculty of Law of the Academic Campus of the College of Administration, said the bill did not meet international standards on several counts, including the fact that suspects could be barred from participating in judicial procedures and could be prevented from seeing a lawyer for up to 50 days. He also said that the principle of equality before the law was violated when it differentiated between residents and non-residents.
Other critics who spoke during the meeting included representatives of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and the Public Defender's Office.
The law has also come under fire from international organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Amnesty wrote to the members of the committee that "such a law... will be fundamentally discriminatory in that it will apply only to non-residents of Israel and will also have the effect of increasing significantly the risk that persons detained incommunicado under the law will be subject to torture or ill treatment.
On both these grounds, we consider the proposed law to be in contravention of international human rights law and Israel's treaty obligations as a state party to a range of international human rights treaties."
Eitan pointed out that even if the conditions of the proposed law were harsher than similar ones in other countries, it should be kept in mind that none of those countries faced the threats Israel did.