Letter to Sec. Clinton Re: Palestinian Hunger Strikes

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton U.S. Department of State 2201 C Street NW Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Clinton,

Although the imminent threat of death for Palestinian hunger strikers has apparently been averted as the strikers have won concessions from Israeli authorities to improve their conditions, the National Lawyers Guild continues to express its grave concern over the issues that caused those approximately 2000 Palestinian prisoners to put their lives on the line. Those prisoners were protesting against the widespread and illegal practice of administrative detention, as well as the horrendous living conditions and ill-treatment to which they are subjected in Israeli prisons. It is regrettable that it has taken the mass near-starvation of Palestinian political prisoners to call attention to their plight. The last minute concessions allowed Israel to avoid a volatile situation, both in its prisons and in the land it occupies. We call on you to insist that the Israeli authorities abide by their international obligations, respect international humanitarian and human rights laws, and implement the concessions they agreed to in good faith—and to do so publicly.

The written agreement apparently contains five main provisions: * The prisoners would end their hunger strike following the signing of the agreement. * Israel will end the use of long-term isolation of prisoners for “security” reasons, and the 19 prisoners currently in isolation will be moved out within 72 hours. * Family visits for first degree relatives of prisoners from the Gaza Strip and for families from the West Bank who have been denied visit based on vague “security reasons” will be reinstated within one month. * A committee will be formed to facilitate meetings between the Israeli Prison Service and prisoners in order to improve their daily conditions. * There will be no new administrative detention orders or renewals of administrative detention orders for the 308 Palestinians currently in administrative detention, unless the secret files, upon which administrative detention is based, contains “very serious” information.

Unfortunately, Israeli authorities have not agreed to end their widespread use of indefinitely renewable administrative detention by military courts, based on secret evidence, without charge or trial. This practice is in violation of international humanitarian law, which permits the limited use of administrative detention but nevertheless requires a fair hearing at which the detainee can hear the evidence against him/her and challenge the bases for continued detention. This is also a fundamental tenet of due process rights and is required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in particular Article 14 paragraph 3 (a), which provides that everyone be entitled to “be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him.” The policy of administrative detention contravenes these basic international human rights standards as the evidence against these detainees is submitted in secret to the military court and neither the detainees nor their lawyers are given access to it. Since the detainees do not know the evidence against them, they are unable to refute it or otherwise defend themselves.

Administrative detainees have in the past included, and will likely continue to include many Palestinians involved in organizing non-violent political activity. They have also included elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Currently 24 Palestinian MPs are in administrative detention, effectively disabling the governing body.

According to data in the military courts' annual report, obtained several months ago by Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, 98.77 percent of requests for administrative detention have been approved by military courts over the past few years. One third of the 308 currently held detainees have been held between one and two years, 13 have been held between two and four and a half years, and two have been held for even longer. Several individuals have been subjected to administrative detention several times, with aggregate time served in detention sometimes exceeding 10 years.

According to Human Rights Watch: “The idea that you can lock up 100s of people at any given time—and over the years 100s and 1000s of people—without any due process rights, really turns human rights law on its head.” The UN Human Rights Committee has consistently said that administrative detention is practiced by Israel in an unlawful way. In response to the mass hunger strike, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanded that all the administrative detainees “must be charged and face trial with judicial guarantees, or be released without delay.” We urge the US government to make this same demand concerning present and future administrative detainees. Israel has consistently failed in the past to respect the agreements it has entered into with Palestinians regarding prisoners’ issues, including the use of long-term isolation. The release of Palestinian leader Ahmad Sa’adat, held in isolation since March 18, 2009, and the return of all isolated prisoners to the general population were the primary demands of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike of October 2011. That strike ended with Israeli concessions that were not kept. Long-term isolation, up to 10 years in one case, continued. Ahmad Sa’adat remained isolated. Solitary confinement also continued to be systematically used pre-trial as a means of isolating detainees and coercing them to confess.

As we are sure you are aware, on October 18, 2011, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, speaking before the UN General Assembly, called for all use of isolation longer than 15 days to be banned, saying that isolation can cause "severe mental pain or suffering" and "can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period... solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion technique." We therefore urge you to insist that Israel respect the obligations it has just entered into concerning putting an end to its illegal use of isolation.

This is not the first mass Palestinian prisoner hunger strike. Nor is it likely to be the last time that prisoners put their lives and health at stake in an effort to defend their dignity and human rights within a military justice system that is rife with physical and psychological torture, abuse, and deprivation. Hunger strikes are virtually the only way that their voices can be heard. It is imperative that the US government hears the voices of Palestinian prisoners and takes action to secure and protect their fundamental rights. Their lives depend on it.

Given the likelihood that human rights and humanitarian law violations will continue to be committed and condoned by the Israeli military courts, in particular the widespread use of administrative detention, it is unconscionable that the United States continues its military aid of over $3.1 billion a year to Israel—and even discusses adding an additional $1 billion. In light of the violations we have outlined above, the National Lawyers Guild calls for the immediate cessation of all military aid to Israel.

Sincerely, Heidi Boghosian Executive Director National Lawyers Guild