African migrants trapped at the Israel-Egypt border fence
African migrants sit near the border fence between Israel and Egypt near the Israeli village of Be'er Milcha September 6, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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A refugee rights organization has asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Military Advocate General Brig. Gen Danny Efroni to investigate alleged crimes committed against 18 Eritrean migrants who were trapped between the Israeli and Egyptian border fences last month.

Attorneys Yiftah Cohen and Omer Shatz of the We Are Refugees NGO requested "the opening of a criminal investigation... into the involvement of individuals in the military, the State Prosecutor's Office, and other administrative bodies, in alleged crimes that were committed against 18 asylum seekers who came knocking at the border fence with Egypt."

The request is based in part on the testimonies of three Eritreans from the original group of 21, who say that the other 18 migrants who were trapped between the border fences were forced back into Egypt despite their desperate pleas - a description that contradicts the version of events relayed by the Prime Minister's Office, which implied that they went willingly.

No IDF response

The IDF Spokesman's Office has yet to respond to the affidavits of the three - two women and one teenage boy - which were first reported three weeks ago in Haaretz.

Their testimonies contradict both the press release issued by the Prime Minister's Office, according to which the group of 18 migrants "retraced their steps" after "a solution was reached," as well as the state's reply to the High Court of Justice that the members of that group "left the gathering place - and turned back."

The three witnesses, who were brought into Israel by the Israel Defense Forces, said in the affidavits that: "Some of the men were comatose and all were hungry and exhausted, and tried to resist with the little strength they had left, while pleading and screaming that they would rather be killed on the spot than be returned to Egypt." It was further reported that when the Eritreans banged on the fence, the soldiers employed tear gas against them."

"The testimony of the three survivors strengthens the suspicion that the disappearance of the 18 asylum seekers may be traced to cooperation between the Israeli authorities and the authorities in Egypt, and that the joint actions by Israel and Egypt constitute violations of the most basic principles of refugee law in international law," reads the NGO's request for a criminal probe. "What is worse - the testimonies of the survivors reveal a suspicion of other offenses that were committed against the group of helpless asylum seekers, such as aggravated assault.

"Despite the rules of international law, which require that access be granted to the asylum system and an individual examination of the applications for asylum ... the military prevented the asylum seekers from crossing the border fence, which would at least have stopped the immediate danger to their lives and later on would also have enabled them to submit their application for asylum to the authorities in Israel."

According to Omer Shatz, "We took action in an attempt to locate the 18 people whom Israel violently deported, but to date we do not know what happened to them. Regardless of the possible opening of an investigation, we will relay the information in our possession also to the American State Department and other international bodies, in the hope that they will succeed in restraining such cruel measures in future."

Suspicion that the handling of the 18 migrants might be a violation of international law was previously raised in a letter from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, William Tall.

The letter contained harsh criticism of Israel: "Granting asylum seekers entry to a territory so they can apply for political asylum is a basic component in a country's responsibility according to the 1951 convention on refugees," Tall wrote in a letter presented to the High Court of Justice, in the NGO's failed petition to grant the migrants entry into Israel. "Israel, as is known, was one of the first countries to sign the convention and was even among its drafters, and it is a veteran member of the executive committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees."

He further wrote that, "because of the absence of an official agreement on the matter between Israel and Egypt, which would guarantee asylum seekers' rights and their safety - those who are returned might fall into the hands of individuals who engage in human smuggling in Sinai - where cases of abuse and torture have been documented."

The IDF Spokesman's Office stated that, "in accordance with the orders of the political echelon and the decisions of the Israeli government, IDF forces work to prevent illegal entry through the western border of the State of Israel. As of this moment no request as alleged has been received. Should a complaint arrive it will be examined by the relevant authorities."

The Justice Ministry's comment could not be obtained.