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Ha'aretz, July 18, 1999

Where is the rule of law?

By Gideon Levy


Toward the end of last week, the scenario that Osama Barham, the most senior of all the administrative detainees, would be released and allowed to go home today, after almost six years in prison without a trial, became all the more real.The High Court of Justice is scheduled to debate Barham's petition today against his continued detention.

His attorney, Tamar Peleg-Sarik, will argue that since no investigation is being conducted into her client's case - it is inconceivable that his investigation has been going on for six straight years - and, what is more, the reliability of the confidential material against him has become eroded over the years, there no longer exist any grounds to continue to hold him in detention without a trial.

It is possible that the parties will reach an agreement even before the debate over the petition, as has happened with a number of other administrative detainees in the past. This, of course, will be good news for Barham, his family and friends, both Palestinian and Israeli.But the disgrace of his extended detention without trial will not quickly be forgotten. It is possible that something will come up to prevent his release. In that case, the black flag of ignominy will continue to flutter over the rule of law, in a country in which people can be arrested for years without trial - establishing it as a cross between the Soviet Union and Argentina of bygones past.

It is difficult to know for sure why the Shin Bet is so insistent on holding this sales agent of dietetic products and student of journalism from the village of Ramin for such a long time. We have to assume that the organization responsible for our security had a very good reason to do with him what it did not dare do with any other administrative detainee.

However, no logic in the world, not even that of Shin Bet agents, can explain the contradiction between the existence of confidential material against Barham, as rich as it may be, and the fact that Shin Bet has not yet succeeded in bringing this ostensibly dangerous man to trial.

This man is apparently so dangerous that it is worthwhile to undermine the country's rule of law for him.

One day, it should be hoped, Shin Bet will be required to explain this phenomenon - of how its people throw Palestinians into jail for years without anyone outside the Shin Bet having the slightest idea why. One day they will have to provide answers to the relentless questions - what justification was there for the issue of some 20,000 arrest warrants without trial against some 5,000 residents? What were the criteria for these arrests? How readily were they issued? How many of them were groundless, preventative arrests?

Just last week Omar Ranimat, a prisoner recently released who had been subjected to torture, told me that his interrogators had threatened him that if he associated with his relatives - Hamas activists in his village - he would immediately be sent to administrative detention.

But beyond these questions of principle, there are also a number of oppressive personal questions. Zahava Galon, the new MK from Meretz, who has already designated herself as Dedi Zucker's replacement Knesset guardian of human rights, was impressed last week when she visited Barham in prison, by the sincerity of his opposition to violence.

Barham himself last week wrote a letter to his devoted friend, Dr. Anat Matar of Tel Aviv University, in which he related the details of his extended internment. "It is strange. I have been in administrative detention for almost six years and I haven't seen my brothers, who are not allowed to visit me, because the army will not give them permission to enter Israel. I had five nieces and nephews when I was arrested. Now I have 37. I know only five of them. All my 10 brothers and sister have married since - and I remain in jail. My uncle and both grandmothers have passed away - and I remain in jail. My father was killed in a car accident while on the way to visit me in Ketziyot and when I asked for permission just to call my mother - they did not let me. That is my greatest sorrow. We, the security prisoners, are never permitted to telephone home. Criminals are allowed to. It is strange to be in jail for almost six years - without being charged."

About a year ago, he wrote me, "Where is natural justice? Where is the natural right of a human being to know the reason he has been sent to jail? And what about the right to legal representation? How can I defend myself if I don't know why and against what? And how long will these young people remain in jail on the basis of some arbitrary and mysterious charges? It is very strange. Have you ever heard of someone begging to be tried, begging to be investigated? A person needs to have some kind of file, to know in what direction he is going."

Who will answer these questions? New winds are starting to blow in this country. The new Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin, hurried to act to cancel administrative detentions and Galon submitted a bill in the same spirit. But in the meantime, 64 Palestinian and another 21 administrative detainees remain in prison. One of the Palestinians, Eiman Drarma, has been held for over four years. Some of the Lebanese prisoners have been locked up for 13 years.

It should be hoped that Beilin's courageous initiative will succeed in breaking down the walls of opposition within Shin Bet which finds it so convenient to simply throw people in jail without a trial. But these questions will continue to echo until we can all be sure that this moral and legal disgrace of administrative detention is finally eradicated



(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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