Israel's High Court Hears Petition Against Third Version of Migrant Detention Law

Justices question automatic decision to hold illegal entrants for maximum 20 months in the controversial law.

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Asylum seekers protest at Holot detention center in Negev, February 17, 2104.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday held its first hearing on a petition by human rights groups against a new amendment to the law to prevent illegal entry to Israel.

The previous two versions of the law were struck down by the court. An expanded bench of nine justices, headed by new High Court President Miriam Naor, is expected to rule on the case in coming months.

The amendment regulates the operation of the Holot detention center in the Negev, in which some 2,000 asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea are being held.

It limits detention at Holot to 20 months and also permits the state to hold new asylum seekers who enter Israel illegally at Saharonim Prison.

Justice Uzi Fogelman, who wrote the majority opinion striking down the previous iteration of the amendment, said the new version had made progress. But he said “the claim is that because of the geographic location and low pocket money, the restriction of liberty remains the same restriction. That is the thing that has an implication for constitutionality.” Pocket money refers to the small stipends the prisoners receive every month.

At yesterday’s hearing the justices criticized the fact that the authorities send people to Holot for the maximum of 20 months without discretion.

When Justice Hanan Melcer asked whether the decision was automatically made to send the asylum seekers to Holot for 20 months “or even five, 10 or 15 months,” the state’s representative, Yochi Gnessin, said everyone was sent for 20 months.

“You don’t immediately fire the ultimate weapon, especially since the legislature gave discretion to the authorities to give an order of as long as 20 months,” Melcer said.

Gnessin rejected the petitioners’ claim that Holot was designed to break the detainees’ spirits and to encourage them to leave the country.

Gnessin told the court that 6,000 asylum seekers had left Israel last year, about 1,000 of them to third countries. Israel had reached agreement under which two of those countries would take hundreds more each month, Gnessin said.

Present during the first part of the hearing was MK Miri Regev (Likud), chairwoman of the Knesset Interior Committee, who had expedited passage of the new amendment.

After she left the courtroom, she criticized the justices, who she said were cut off from reality.

The petition was submitted in the name of Anwar, an asylum seeker from Sudan who has been held at Holot for about a year.

“After the hearing I feel there will be a good decision, like the previous ones. It cannot be that they put a person, without reason, without trial, in a facility for 20 months,” Anwar said after the hearing.

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