'Israeli Beduin in Egypt dreams of home'

Lawyer, MK push for release of Rahat resident who has been jailed for 10 years on espionage charges.

tarabin 224 88 (photo credit: Brenda Gazzar [file])
tarabin 224 88
(photo credit: Brenda Gazzar [file])
Ouda Suleiman Tarabin dreams of returning to his family's modest Negev home near Rahat, continuing his studies and taking a wife, his attorney says. But the Israeli Beduin, who is about 28 years old, has been imprisoned in Egypt nearly a decade now in an alleged espionage case that has been shrouded in secrecy. Despite the case's low profile and lack of real political momentum, Tarabin's attorney, Izhak Melzer, along with MK Ayoub Kara (Likud), is determined to keep the issue on the public agenda. Melzer recently faxed a plea to US President Barack Obama, asking him to intervene in the matter ahead of the leader's highly anticipated meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday. "I will not give up until he's home," Melzer, an energetic 66-year-old attorney from Beersheba who has represented his client pro-bono for three years, said this week. "I'm trying to raise public awareness and am not giving up on putting pressure on the [Israeli] government to be more creative and aggressive" on this case. Melzer has also faxed letters to Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon (Israel Beiteinu), requesting their help in recent days. "I think that Ouda is a victim of Israeli reluctance to embarrass Egypt on this matter," said Melzer, who has said he is "more than convinced" of his client's innocence. Israeli officials, who have adamantly denied that Tarabin was a spy, are reluctant to discuss the case in detail. The government, which also has limited access to information about the case, has been trying to secure the shepherd's release since it first discovered he was being held in 2004. They acknowledge, however, that their efforts have yielded little progress. "The issue is being taken care of," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "We hope that this tragic, sad and even absurd incident will be resolved quickly, as such matters usually are among civilized people." Kara said he had submitted a petition to President Shimon Peres that included the signatures of dozens of MKs, in an effort to secure Tarabin's release. The petition, he said, had been given to Peres before he met with Mubarak and other Egyptian officials last month in Sharm e-Sheikh, where he discussed Tarabin's case, among other matters. "Druse parliament member launches a campaign to release the last spy for Israel in Egypt," Arab press reports declared of Kara's activities last month. According to Kara, Egyptian officials have indicated to the president's office that Tarabin might now be held on charges of weapons possession or smuggling rather than on espionage-related charges. Kara said this could be "a turning point" on the part of Egyptian officials, noting that the case had always been discussed as being espionage-related. However, that claim could not be confirmed by the Post. A spokeswoman from the president's office would only say that the president had indeed raised Tarabin's case with Cairo officials. Egyptian officials could not be reached in recent days for comment on the matter. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman asked about the issue said in a text message Monday that he was on holiday. Tarabin was arrested at the age of 19 in late 1999 after crossing the Egyptian border without proper documentation, apparently to visit a sister. Tarabin was told by his Egyptian interrogators that he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison by a military tribunal on charges of disclosing information and military secrets to Israel, Melzer said. Tarabin was sentenced under Egypt's sweeping Emergency Law in absentia, and all the details of his indictment and trial have been kept confidential by Egyptian authorities, he said. The young Beduin received 15 years of hard labor "on charges of transferring sensitive military information about Egypt to Israel and trying to recruit Egyptians to work for the Israeli intelligence," according to a non-sourced article that ran in Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm on April 4. Since Tarabin's arrest nearly 10 years ago, he has served time in various prisons in Port Said, Alexandria and now near Cairo, but is being treated well by the authorities, said his attorney, who last visited him in prison in June. Melzer suspects Tarabin might be held by Egyptian officials over similar allegations they have made against his father, Suleiman, who lives in Israel and whom they cannot arrest. In fact, Tarabin was told by interrogators that his father had also been sentenced to 25 years in prison for disclosing information and military secrets to Israel, Melzer said. According to the Al-Masry al-Youm article, which could not be verified by the Post, Israel recruited the father to spy on Egyptian resistance movements in Sinai during the War of Attrition. In 1990, the father and his family reportedly "fled" to Israel and were given Israeli citizenship. Tarabin was reportedly arrested when he returned to Sinai to visit his married sister in El-Arish in 1999, in possession of fake dollars, Israeli currency and "a communication device." It then "emerged that he had tried to recruit his sister's husband" for espionage-related activities, and his case was sent to trial, according to the article. Suleiman Tarabin, however, told the Post last year that he and his children had received Israeli citizenship because he had married an Arab-Israeli woman and not for any other reason. He also insisted that his son had never been a spy. Melzer believes Israel should try to include Tarabin in a prisoner exchange agreement with Egypt, but there is no evidence to date that Israeli officials have tried to arrange such a deal. Today, there are nearly 70 Egyptian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. Egypt, too, appears to have shown little interest in working for their release, Melzer said. Meanwhile, Tarabin's family, recently visited by Kara, continues to wait for word that something - anything - will change. "He is the eldest brother and was like the first man in the family that everyone used to rely on," said his brother, Eid Tarabin, 25. "And suddenly he was gone. He has been gone already 10 years. It's difficult."