Report: Palestinian child prisoners' rights still violated despite reforms

Ex-chief prosecutor disputes findings, says report is politically biased, doesn’t grapple with complex details.

A young Palestinian stands outside Ofer Prison near Ramallah. B’Tselem finds fault with the way IDF West Bank courts treat minors who have been arrested (photo credit: FADI AROURI/REUTERS)
A young Palestinian stands outside Ofer Prison near Ramallah. B’Tselem finds fault with the way IDF West Bank courts treat minors who have been arrested
(photo credit: FADI AROURI/REUTERS)
The reforms the IDF West Bank courts have undertaken for Palestinian minors since 2009 are a cover-up for a system that violates their rights, the human-rights group B’Tselem says in a report unveiled on Tuesday.
Since 2009, the courts have undergone multiple rounds of reforms – in 2011, 2014 and in the present – to improve the protection of rights of Palestinian minors after being arrested, accused of a crime or who otherwise come through the justice system.
The IDF presented the reforms as dealing with everything, from issuing shorter detention periods to employing specially-trained interrogators and judges to better integrate the parents of minors into the legal process.
B’Tselem says that the overall impact of the reforms on the judicial process has been negligible and that the IDF has mainly used them for public relations purposes to push back against global criticism.
The report describes the arrests of Palestinian minors, saying: “Israeli security forces pick them up on the street or at home in the middle of the night, then handcuff and blindfold them and transport them to interrogation, often subjecting them to violence.”
B’Tselem admits the IDF cut the length of the initial detention period before the minor can see a judge. Before the reforms began in 2009, detention periods could run up to eight days while detainees aged 12 to 14 now must be brought before a judge within 24 hours, aged 14 to 17 within 48 hours and aged 16 to 17 within 96 hours in cases of “security offenses.”
The relevant military order allows doubling the times if “the necessities of the investigation” require more time.
But, the human rights group says, the big problem is with the post-indictment detention, which can sometimes run for months or longer. The report asserts that this aspect has not been shortened at all.
Rather, IDF West Bank courts still issue post-indictment detention to most minors, which pressures most of them into plea-bargain deals.
If minors do not cut such deals, the report says, they are likely to spend even more time in jail as the court system often convicts defendants anyway and drags out trials, sometimes for a year or more.
If a Palestinian minor cuts a plea-bargain deal, however, the minor may be released after only a few weeks or months.
The IDF does not deny that many Palestinian minors are detained until the end of their proceedings, but has said that this is necessary as they otherwise will not show up for court proceedings.
Former chief West Bank prosecutor and current Palestinian Media Watch legal adviser Maurice Hirsch told The Jerusalem Post that the maximum time a minor can be held post-indictment before the trial has been shortened from two years to one year. He said the IDF had been working on further shortening that time when he retired.
The report slams the IDF for continuing a system of extensive night arrests – entering Palestinian minors’ homes in the middle of the night, often for allegations of rock throwing, and whisking them away to detention straight out of bed.
Once again, the IDF does not deny that it uses night arrests as a tactic, but has previously asserted that it does this because daytime arrests lead to rioting, in which Palestinians and IDF soldiers can be injured.
Another criticism mentioned by the report is that the reforms geared toward integrating minors’ parents into the legal process lack substance.
The report notes that parents are not included in the interrogations and often have trouble getting through checkpoints to attend pre-indictment detention hearings.
Furthermore, though parents technically have a right to be present at a minor’s trial, the report notes that so few minors have trials because most cut plea deals.
Parents also receive formal notice about their child’s arrest, but B’Tselem says that if the parents miss the interrogations – in which many minors confess to the allegations – the notice becomes valueless.
The IDF has not denied that parents are not present for interrogations, but has previously pointed out that Israeli minors’ parents are also not entitled to be present for interrogations.
Hirsch added that when he was chief prosecutor, there were plenty of parents at their children’s detention hearings.
B’Tselem’s report rejects this and any other comparisons to the Israeli judicial system, saying that the Israeli system is handling its own citizens and the IDF system is handling an occupied people.
THE REPORT describes the interrogation of Palestinian minors as often involving “threats, yelling, verbal abuse and sometimes physical violence... to get the minors to confess or provide information about others.”
It said that 80% of Palestinian minors asserted they were not told by interrogators about their right to a lawyer.
Hirsch disputed the statistics’ reliability.
Furthermore, the report seeks to undermine the significance of decisions made by the court which have acquitted minors of crimes due to lack of evidence or citing a minor’s mistreatment.
B’Tselem explains decisions made by IDF West Bank Court president Col. Netanel Benishu as well as his predecessor, Aharon Mishnayot. While the report credits both judges with individual decisions acquitting minors, it then cites counterexamples where each judge narrowed the basis of a prior acquittal so that it would not apply widely to too many other minors.
In essence, the report asserts that the decisions to acquit minors, like the reforms, were a fig leaf, but not a change to a system that does not provide justice or sufficient protections.
At a press conference presenting the report, B’Tselem said that international law’s protection is too weak and that the only solution is global pressure on Israel to end the occupation.
Hirsch said that the report was politically biased and did not truly grapple with the complex details of the IDF West Bank courts.