Hadera mayor probed for collecting Darfur refugees

Police suspect mayor illegally rounded up, confined, and bused 20 Sudanese to Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park in the middle of the night.

sudanese refugees 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sudanese refugees 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hadera Mayor Haim Avitan was questioned by police for four hours on Sunday over suspicions that he illegally rounded up, forcefully confined and bused 20 Sudanese asylum-seekers out of his city in 2007 and dumped them in the capital's Liberty Bell Park in the middle of the night. Northern Police District spokesman Yehuda Maman told The Jerusalem Post that Hadera municipality inspectors had acted on Avitan's orders when they illegally held the refugees. Sunday's interrogation came two years after the Hotline for Migrant Workers filed a police complaint over Avitan's actions. Shortly after being left at Liberty Bell Park, the refugees were joined by a Hotline for Migrant Workers member, who established contact with their employer in Hadera. The Sudanese refused a request by their employer to return to Hadera, due to their traumatic expulsion, according to the Hotline's Sigal Rozen. "I can't blame them. Many members of the group lost family members during the genocide in Darfur, while some endured torture by Sudanese and Egyptian security officials before arriving in Israel. They were very frightened when a group of uniformed men with guns who did not identify themselves placed them on buses without telling them where they were going," Rozen said. "One refugee saw a sign for Ben-Gurion Airport and thought he was being flown back to Sudan," she added. Avitan had violated a court order which allowed the refugees to reside in Hadera, Rozen said. She accused the mayor of endangering the safety of the refugees' family members back in Sudan by distributing photographs of the eviction to the media "to show residents of Hadera he was taking action." The Sudanese government could punish relatives of refugees who sought asylum in Israel, Rozen said. "His words were, I am going to prove that Hadera is not the garbage can of the country," she said. A statement sent to the Post by the Hadera Municipality read, "These were refugees who were classed as illegal residents and brought into the city. Following complaints that the refugees were harassing teenage girls and acting violently against residents, and following requests by parent committees to the mayor... a decision was taken to evacuate them from Hadera in order to protect public safety." Avitan's decision was backed by the city council, and the mayor "strictly adhered to the law and acted in the public interest. He sought to find an appropriate government solution to the issue of illegal residents who were living in orchards, in degrading conditions, in a poor state of hygiene, and who ate cats and dogs. The clearance was therefore necessary for them, too," the statement continued. The municipal statement blamed "political elements who linked up with police against the mayor" for the investigation, adding, "It is strange that only today, two years after the event, the mayor was questioned." "These elements would like to change the public agenda in Hadera and to interrupt the development and progress across a range of sectors, the likes of which the city has not seen in the past." Last week, police said evidence existed to back up suspicions that Avitan acted fraudulently and violated his public office when he appointed a CEO of a sewage water purification company. The comments came after an investigation was completed by the National Fraud Unit into suspicions of an improper appointment.