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The Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir has only one anthropologist, an expert in examining both skeletons and living people to determine their age, sex, ethnic origin and other factors. So when she is on vacation, as has been the case for the last three weeks, many migrants remain in jail and legal proceedings are delayed while waiting for her to determine their age and ethnic origin.

One such case is now making its way through the Tel Aviv court system. It began in January, when two Eritreans were arrested in south Tel Aviv on suspicion of sexually assaulting a young woman whom they dragged into an alley one night. The prosecution eventually decided to indict them.

But at the opening session of the trial in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, the defendants' parents declared that while the two are listed in court documents as being 21 and 22, in reality they are 16 and 17 years old.

Since migrants generally arrive with no documentation, their ages are registered in official documents based on their own testimony. The parents claimed that Eritrean migrants are told even before leaving Eritrea that upon arrival at the processing facility in Saharonim Prison, they should declare their children to be 18. That way, they will quickly be released (since Eritreans are automatically entitled to asylum ) rather than being sent to a juvenile holding facility. So that is what the parents did.

The prosecution accused the defense attorneys of raising this claim solely in the hope of entitling their clients to the easier treatment given juvenile defendants. The judge was also skeptical, saying they both looked like adults. But the attorneys demanded an age test, and the court is obliged to accede to this demand.

An expert can determine a person's age to within three years, by examining a photograph of his palm. So a month ago, the defendants' palms were duly photographed.

But at a court hearing earlier this week, both sides discovered that the only person authorized to provide the expert opinion is Dr. Tzipi Kahana of Abu Kabir - and since she has been on vacation overseas, there was still no answer.

The court therefore decided to transfer the case to the Tel Aviv juvenile court, since Israel has signed an international convention stating that in cases where the defendant's age is in doubt, he should be treated as a minor. The prosecution promptly appealed this decision.

Kahana is supposed to return to Israel on Friday. But even if she starts work on the case immediately, her report will be issued only at the end of next week.

Meanwhile, the two defendants are being held in an adult prison, though they have been given a separate cell. Because of the uncertainty over their ages, they can neither be sent to a juvenile prison nor put in a regular cell.

There are currently several dozen migrants in Saharonim Prison who cannot be released until they have undergone an age test, and other prisons hold a few dozen more. But all of them depend on the verdict of one person: Tzipi Kahana.

The Institute of Forensic Medicine said in response that a second anthropological expert is currently undergoing clinical training at the institute.