Sa’ar, Liberman duke it out over minimum prisoner space

Justice Minister warns that the government will violate High Court order without more prisons.

GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman are fighting it out over the correct way to fulfill a High Court of Justice order to provide every prisoner the minimum cell space due under international law.

On Sunday, a spokesman for Liberman indicated that the professional levels of the relevant ministries were negotiating over the issue following an aggressive letter from Sa’ar on Wednesday last week warning about violating the High Court order.

Since the 2017 ruling, the High Court has pressed the prison system to completely revamp itself, build new facilities and alter policies to lead to early releases of certain categories of prisoners in order to meet the minimum international standard that every prisoner will have 4.5 meters of cell space.

Although the government has accepted the decision and has worked the last few years toward meeting the High Court ruling with some success, large numbers of prisoners still have substantially less space than required.

In its initial response to the High Court ruling which gave it 18 months to make changes, the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) projected it might not come into complete compliance before 2027 simply because it would take that long to acquire new budgets and build new facilities.

 Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The High Court rejected that scenario, extending the time the state had to comply with the 2017 order until December 2022.

Sa’ar’s letter last week argued that with one year until the deadline and progress falling far short of the High Court’s order, an all-hands on deck approach is needed to solve the issue.

More specifically, he critiqued Liberman and the Finance Ministry for thinking they could solve the issue merely by a mix of early administrative releases of prisoners and detained suspects.

In contrast, Sa’ar not only has problems with too many administrative releases of criminals, but he also said that even an expansion of the early release policy pushed forward a few years ago cannot possibly comply with the High Court order on its own.

Rather, the only way to fully comply is to build new prisons in order to multiply the amount of space available for prisoners, something which the Finance Ministry must facilitate in terms of funding.

Sa’ar believes that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett supports him on this issue, and that the main roadblock is Liberman, though Bennett has not publicly addressed the issue to date.