Palestine: UN must urgently intervene to ensure Israel upholds its legal obligations toward Palestinian prisoners and detainees

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

The need for urgent intervention to ensure the right to health and safety is upheld for  Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention centres was reasserted in a joint urgent appeal to the United Nations (UN) Special Procedures, sent on 5 August 2020  by Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association (Addameer), Al-Haq, and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

Our organisations emphasized the continued failure of Israel to adhere to its legal obligations, as Occupying Power, and its failure to protect Palestinian prisoners and detainees from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), including the most vulnerable groups such as minors or chronically ill, and those held under administrative detention, in contravention of the international law. The  mandates were urged to intervene in order to guarantee the rights to life and health, and the safety of Palestinian prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Urgent Intervention Needed to Protect Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees in Israeli Prisons Amidst Concerns over COVID-19 Exposure

Submitted by:

  • Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association
  • Al-Haq – Law in the Service of Man
  • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

For the attention of:

  • The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, Mr Michael Lynk;
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Ms Tlaleng Mofokeng;
  • The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Ms Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur); and
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or Punishment, Mr Nils Melzer.

Dear Mr Lynk, Ms Mofokeng, Ms Toomey, and Mr Melzer,

As Israel continues to fail to adhere to its legal obligations, as occupying power, to protect Palestinian prisoners and detainees from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), our organisations reassert the need for an urgent intervention to uphold the right to health and safety of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention, particularly as many are minors, chronically ill, and other vulnerable groups, or they are being held under administrative detention in contravention of international law.

On 1 April 2020, our organisations addressed your mandates highlighting our concern for Palestinian detainees and prisoners, stemming from Israel’s systematic policy of medical negligence and aggravated by recent Israeli practices and decisions, including the decision by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) to halt all family and lawyers’ visits for Palestinian prisoners, justifying this arbitrary measure as a COVID-19 precaution. Israel’s recent decisions have escalated its violations against Palestinian prisoners and detainees, including their right to liberty and security of person, and their rights to a fair and speedy trial, by postponing all trial proceedings in the military courts, preventing Palestinians who are undergoing pre-trial detention or interrogation from being brought into court for their detention extensions. Moreover, legal representatives have been barred from direct communication with Palestinian prisoners and have only been allowed phone calls with them. As such, legal representatives have been unable to accurately assess the health condition and safety of Palestinian detainees.[1]

Since then, a group of United Nations (UN) human rights experts urged Israel, the occupying power, to cease its discriminatory practices against Palestinian prisoners that face high-risk exposure to COVID-19,[2] referring to Israel’s release of Israeli prisoners as preventative and protective step.[3] Further, the experts urged Israel, the occupying power, to release the most vulnerable Palestinian prisoners and detainees, particularly women, children, older persons and those with pre-existing medical conditions, stating that: “Israel should be taking steps to release those facing arbitrary measures as well as vulnerable groups in its prisons to reduce overcrowding and ensure the minimum conditions to prevent the spread of the virus.”[4] The UN human rights experts further highlighted Israel’s decision to halt family visits for Palestinian prisoners and detainees and to restrict their access to lawyers noting that it: “is critical that any such measures are medically justified and, if so, alternative means for communication, such as video conferencing, should be made available. Special and more relaxed measures should also apply to children and women for visits.”[5]

Since June 2020, lawyer visits to Palestinian prisoners and detainees have resumed. That being said, the Israeli occupying authorities imposed further restrictions on these visits, including delays of the visits, limits on the number of visited detainees and the duration of the visit itself. Family visits have resumed as well, however, some families have reported that their scheduled visited were cancelled a night before the visit or in the morning of the visiting day itself. While the Israeli occupying authorities have resumed to court hearings for Palestinian detainees, they have failed to take necessary protective measures for the health of detainees while transferring them to courts and clinics. Notably, Kamal Abu Wa’ar, 46 years old, a Palestinian prisoner who has cancer, tested positive for COVID-19 in early July 2020. It appears that Kamal was infected with the virus during his transfer from the prison to clinics and hospitals. Since then, Kamal has been isolated in al-Ramleh Prison Clinic and denied access to Addameer’s lawyers, despite their repeated requests.

Notably, the Israeli occupying forces continue to conduct arbitrary arrest campaigns, in spite of the rapid outbreak of COVID-19, specifically over the past two months. Newly detained Palestinian prisoners and detainees are directly taken to quarantine following their arrest, unless they are taken to interrogations. The male prisoners and detainees are usually taken to detention centers, such as Etzion detention center, where a range of four to six detainees are placed together in one prison cell for a total of fourteen days as quarantine. As for the Palestinian female prisoners and detainees, they are taken to Hasharon prison for quarantine, specifically to the section where Israeli female common-law prisoners are held. Three to four Palestinian female prisoners and detainees are held together in one cell for fourteen days under quarantine. According to Addameer’s documentation, all prisoners and detainees who were taken to quarantine reported that they have endured unsuitable and difficult detention conditions, as they were rarely given clean clothing and were sporadically given one cup of alcohol per week to clean their cells. The prisoners and detainees further reported that the meals provided to them are inadequate, both in terms of quality and quantity. Detention under such degrading circumstances and conditions fails to uphold the prisoners’ right to health or prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Acknowledging that persons deprived of their liberty around the world are likely to be more vulnerable to potentially catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak than the general population,[6] our organisations note that Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons face dismal detention conditions, including overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, lack of proper ventilation and poor nutrition. As such, these conditions constitute a life-threatening situation and compound the vulnerability of Palestinian prisoners. Our organisations note that these policies and practices must be understood and analysed as part of Israel’s systematic policy of medical negligence. In 2020, Saadi Al Gharabli, a seventy-five-year-old Palestinian prisoner passed away due to Israel’s policy of medical neglect, Saadi suffered from cancer and his treatment was constantly delayed.[7] Similarly, in 2019, and according to Addameer, five Palestinian prisoners died in Israeli detention centers, three of them as a result of deliberate medical negligence by IPS, while hundreds currently detained suffer from chronic diseases that go untreated.

Prisoners have reported that they are not provided with proper hygiene and sanitary products and that IPS has imposed new restrictions on purchases from the prison canteen, which puts them at even further risk of an uncontrolled spread. Furthermore, the IPS officers are not taking proper precautions, as they do not wear hazmat suits, protective gloves, or medical face masks constantly while still conducting daily searches and daily counts of prisoners, which are done five times a day. On 26 July 2020, Muhammad Hazeen from Qalandia refugee camp was released from section 22 at al-Naqab prison and tested positive for COVID-19 right after his release, Muhammad was only in direct contact with other Palestinian prisoners and IPS staff. The IPS then closed section 22 and tested prisoners for COVID-19. The results have not been made public yet.

The number of guards and IPS staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 is increasing. On 23 July 2020, Ofer prison administration announced that the director of Ofer prison and a number of guards and IPS staff tested positive for COVID-19. After confirming that prisoners in room 12 of section 14 were in direct contact with one of the guards who tested positive, the prison administration closed the aforementioned room, tested prisoners in that room for COVID-19, and announced that the results came back negative. The administration also announced that sections 14 and 17 would be reserved for quarantine purposes, specifically for newly detained Palestinian prisoners. Similar to the conditions of Etzion detention center and Hasharon prison, which are reserved for quarantine purposes for the newly-detained male and female Palestinian prisoners and detainees, respectively, a group of prisoners will be quarantined together in the same prison rooms.

As of 28 July 2020, three IPS staff in Ramon prison tested positive. The three staffers are in constant and direct contact with Palestinian prisoners and detainees, as they perform maintenance and work in the supply room and kitchen. As of the time of writing, six Palestinian prisoners, detained in sections 4 and 5 of Ramon prions, were taken to isolation, as a means of quarantine. Furthermore, prisoners at Ramon reported that there are other prisoners who have experienced symptoms of COVID-19 including coughing, fever and diarrhea.

Despite a multitude of guidelines and recommendations issued by the World Health Organization (WHO),[8] the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),[9] and human rights experts on the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the context of detention,[10] conditions in Israeli prisons continue to deteriorate. On 30 March 2020, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) called on Governments to take measures to protect individuals deprived of their liberty during the pandemic and to consider “reducing prison populations by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release of low-risk offenders, reviewing all cases of pre-trial detention, extending the use of bail for all but the most serious cases, as well as reviewing and reducing the use of immigration detention and closed refugee camps.” Their guidance also emphasizes “that all detainees, people in quarantine and closed medical settings, their families, and all staff, should receive reliable, accurate and up to date information concerning all adopted measures.”[11] The Israeli occupying authorities have disregarded all COVID-19 guidelines in dealing with Palestinian prisoners and detainees in the face of the pandemic.

Around the world, UN experts have highlighted the need to ensure the release of political prisoners as well as other detainees in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of Iran, following a decision taken on 9 March to release 70,000 prisoners none of whom were political detainees, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran was able to secure the additional release of political prisoners.[12] On 25 March 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated: “[n]ow, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”[13]

In light of the above, we urge your mandates to urgently intervene to guarantee the rights to life and health, and safety of Palestinian prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to:

  1. Call on Israel, the occupying power, to release all Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli prisons and to ensure their safety from an uncontrolled spread of the pandemic, particularly those who are more vulnerable and more susceptible to the disease, including children, female prisoners, older persons, prisoners with underlying health conditions, and the injured;
  2. Demand, in particular, the release of all Palestinian political prisoners under Israeli administrative detention, who are detained indefinitely without charge or trial, in contravention of international law, and urge the release of all Palestinian political prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences and/or should be released on probation, to reduce overcrowding in prisons;
  3. Call on IPS to ensure the protection of all prisoners without discrimination by adopting the WHO’s recent guidance on preventing a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons, and taking necessary measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic in Israeli prisons;[14]
  4. Call on Israel to implement adequate procedures to ensure the realization of the right to life, ensuring that prisoner deaths are promptly investigated and any violations prosecuted under law, accordingly.

[1] Al-Haq, “Addameer and Al-Haq Send Appeal to UN Special Procedures on the Situation of Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Prisons amidst Concerns over COVID-19 Exposure,” 2 April 2020, available at: http://www.alhaq.org/advocacy/16674.html.

[2] OHCHR, “COVID-19: Israel Must Release Palestinian Prisoners in Vulnerable Situation, say UN experts,” 24 April 2020, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25822&LangID=E.

[3] The Jerusalem Post, “Israel releases 230 prisoners early to reduce crowding amid COVID-19 fears,” 29 March 2020, available at: https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/israel-releases-230-prisoners-early-to-reducecrowding-amid-covid-19-fears-622844.

[4] OHCHR, “COVID-19: Israel Must Release Palestinian Prisoners in Vulnerable Situation, say UN experts,” 24 April 2020, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25822&LangID=E.

[5] Ibid.

[6] WHO, “Preventing COVID-19 outbreak in prisons: a challenging but essential task for authorities,” 23 March 2020, available at: http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-determinants/prisons-and-health/news/news/2020/3/preventing-covid-19-outbreak-in-prisons-a-challenging-but-essential-task-for-authorities.

[7] The Electronic Intifada, “Elderly Palestinian dies after 26 years in Israeli prison,” 8 July 2020, available at: https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/tamara-nassar/elderly-palestinian-dies-after-26-years-israeli-prison.

[8] Ibid. See also IASC, “IASC Interim Guidance on COVID-19: Focus on Persons Deprived of Their Liberty (developed by OHCHR and WHO),” 27 March 2020, available at: https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/other/iasc-interim-guidance-covid-19-focus-persons-deprived-their-liberty-developed-ohchr-and-who.

[9] OHCHR, “Urgent action needed to prevent COVID-19 ‘rampaging through places of detention’ – Bachelet,” 25 March 2020, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25745&LangID=E.

[10] See, e.g., OHCHR, “COVID-19: Who is protecting the people with disabilities? – UN rights expert,” 17 March 2020, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25725&LangID=E.

[11] OHCHR, “COVID-19: Measures needed to protect people deprived of liberty, UN torture prevention body says,” 30 March 2020, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25756.

[12] Parisa Hafezi, “Iran temporarily frees 85,000 from jail including political prisoners,” Reuters, 17 March 2020, available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-iran-prisoners/iran-temporarily-frees-85000-from-jail-including-political-prisoners-idUSKBN21410M. See also OHCHR, “Human rights experts call for immediate release of political prisoners and detainees in Yemen given risk of spread of COVID-19,” 30 March 2020, available at: https://ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=25759&LangID=E.

[13] See supra note 9.

[14] See supra note 8.

Photo: Reuters / Mohammed Salem

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