Bill would free border infiltrators if trial not initiated in 96 hours

After the Knesset became the battleground in recent weeks over stringent laws trying to stem the tide of infiltrators across the Egyptian-Israeli border, the Interior Affairs Committee approved a bill on Monday that would streamline the process through which illegal immigrants are reviewed and categorized. The legislation, if approved in its second and third readings on the Knesset floor, would reduce the amount of time that border infiltrators can be held before seeing a judge to a maximum of 96 hours - as opposed to the current law, which allows 14 days of imprisonment before receiving a hearing. According to members of the Interior Affairs Committee, that change actually reflects a precedent set in 2004, when the Attorney-General's Office said that the 14-day period was an infringement on the prisoners' human rights, and ordered the period shortened to four days. In many cases since 2004, the four-day period has been adopted de facto, but the new legislation would officially ground it in law. Although MKs Dov Henin (Hadash) and Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) wanted the period as short as 24 hours and committee chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) pushed for 36 hours, the Justice Ministry argued that the current case overload meant it would be impossible to do the background checks necessary to establish the status of each infiltrator in less than four days. According to both the old law and the new bill, any infiltrator who doesn't get to see a judge in the time allotted must be released. The amendment to the law would also transfer the responsibility of appointing the judges for the status hearings from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. Neither of the two ministries' representatives opposed the switch. The status review court, currently staffed by seven judges, deals with the process of oversight, release on bail and the continued detention of people who have been arrested on suspicion of illegal entrance to Israel or whose visa or entrance permit to Israel has expired. Those seven judges have been responsible for reviewing the approximately 3,500 border infiltrators believed to have crossed the border since the beginning of 2008. Paz-Pines also asked to add a clause through which the court would be subject to oversight from the Public Ombudsman for Complaints against Judges. The Justice Ministry committed to checking the possibility of such a clause, and the clause was temporarily adopted as part of the law pending the formulation of an official government stance on the issue. The Justice Ministry began its examination of the clause Monday afternoon, and an answer was expected in time to take the entire bill to a vote on the Knesset floor as early as next week.