A father's plea for the prisoner Israel forgot

Beduin languishes for eight years in solitary cell in Egyptian prison.

tarabin 224 88 (photo credit: Brenda Gazzar [file])
tarabin 224 88
(photo credit: Brenda Gazzar [file])
After more than eight years, Israeli Beduin Suleiman Tarabin's hope that his eldest son Ouda will be released soon from his solitary cell in a Cairo prison is fading. Ouda Tarabin was 19 when he illegally crossed the Israeli border into Egypt in late 1999. He was detained by Egyptian authorities and reportedly sentenced in absentia for espionage-related crimes that his family and the Israeli government insist he didn't commit. Tarabin was never indicted, but was sentenced to 15 years in prison under Egypt's Emergency Law, which has been in effect since 1981 and grants police sweeping powers of arrest. "What is the crime that they are holding him for? There is no crime," said his father Suleiman Tarabin from their family home about 15 kilometers from Beersheba. "They just grabbed him. Why did they grab him if there is peace (between Egypt and Israel) and he's an Israeli citizen?" Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy said in a statement that Tarabin "was not a spy for Israel of any kind. Full stop." "We're talking about an issue that is sad and infuriating from [both] a human and [a] legal perspective," he added. But as Egypt has tried in recent months to broker a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel involving kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit and Defense Minister Ehud Barak prepares to visit Egypt next week, relatively little attention appears to be focused on Tarabin - the only Israeli prisoner known to be held in an Egyptian jail. "It is a great breach of human rights," says Ouda's lawyer Izhak Melzer. "The man never had a chance to defend himself; to refute the charges. It's not a trial, it's a mockery. There is no corroborating evidence." Last week, Melzer requested that the Israeli cabinet link Tarabin's case to the release of 199 Palestinian prisoners, a gesture intended to boost the standing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but the cabinet approved the release on Sunday without a word on Tarabin. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who says that she and the ministry are working to keep Tarabin's issue on the agenda, told Melzer that she did not think linking the two would help his case. Israel's relationship with Palestinian parties is important "and we have no interest in giving Egypt veto power on this issue," she wrote in a letter dated August 14. A spokesman for Barak said Tarabin's case was being taken care of by the relevant parties. "Ouda was tried in absentia in March 2000 in an Egyptian military criminal court, [and] accused of revealing information and uncovering military secrets," according to a July 1, 2007 Israeli Foreign Ministry letter written to Melzer about the case. Egyptian Military intelligence investigators told Ouda that he had been sentenced to prison for 15 years before he had entered Egypt and that his father had been sentenced to 25 years for espionage, Melzer said. They said the sentences were based on testimony given by Ouda's Egyptian cousin, Eid Suleiman, who was arrested for similar charges in 1999 and remains in prison today. Ouda Tarabin's family says Ouda has done nothing wrong other than cross into Egypt without the proper documentation. His brother Eid says they don't know why he entered Egypt but says he may have gone to visit his sister, who lives in Al-Arish. Suleiman Tarabin argues that the Israeli government is not doing enough to get his son released. "The Israeli government is obligated legally, they are obligated but there is neglect on the part of the government," Ouda's father Suleiman said. "If he was a spy, they really would have stood behind him... If he was a spy like Azzam Azzam. If he was Jewish, Israel would turn over the world (for him). But he's not Jewish or a spy. He's Arab." Egypt detained Israeli Druse Azzam Azzam of the village of Maghar in 1996 and had sentenced him, too, to 15 years in prison for spying for Israel, accusing him of passing messages in women's underwear using invisible ink. Azzam, who along with Israel has denied the charges, was released in 2004 after he had served eight years of his sentence, as part of a prisoner swap that included the release of six Egyptian students imprisoned in Israel. The Foreign Ministry says it only learned about Tarabin's case five years after he was first arrested. Suleiman Tarabin, however, filed a report with police in January 2000 in the town of Rahat informing them that his son had been arrested in Egypt after he had been notified by Egyptian relatives, Melzer said. Melzer asked police this week to conduct an investigation to determine what steps they took, if any, to follow up on the issue. Foreign Ministry officials said Tarabin's release is "a high priority" for them in their relations with Egypt. "Since becoming aware of the arrest of Ouda Tarabin... the Foreign Ministry is making great governmental and consular efforts to aid him in this matter and to work for his release," the Foreign Ministry press statement said. "The issue comes up in all of our bilateral meetings with Egypt, often at the level of heads of state and senior ministers." Israel's consul was also meeting as often as possible with Tarabin, helping to pass packages and letters between him and family members, according to the statement. The Israeli embassy in Cairo is also in regular contact with the relevant Egyptian authorities "to accelerate the release of the Israeli citizen Tarabin." But Egypt does not appear eager to release the 27-year-old Israeli Beduin. An Egyptian embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv said the issue of Tarabin "was being taken care of by the courts." And in June, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he had discussed Tarabin with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Sharm e-Sheikh, but added that "we cannot release him as long as he has already been convicted," according to a transcript of an interview that was broadcast in Egypt and obtained by Melzer. Melzer is hopeful that with the right amount of politicking, Mubarak could decide to release Tarabin during the upcoming Id al-Fitr holiday, one of several occasions in which amnesty is traditionally granted by the president. "It has nothing to do with the courts," Melzer said. "It has only to do with Mubarak." But Suleiman Tarabin, who hasn't seen his son in more than eight years, says he has little faith in the acts of man and in the laws of states. The 63-year-old father of seven was born in Beersheba and fled with his family to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula during Israel's War of Independence. When asked about the reported Egyptian allegations, Suleiman says he himself received his Israeli citizenship because he married an Israeli woman and not because of any alleged espionage activities. Ouda "didn't do any spying, whether for Israel, or for Egypt," he reiterated. "Ouda has no fault." Chuckling at a reporter's question, he added: "Even if I was a spy, he was not involved."