High Court Hears Petition Over Lack of Heaters for Holot Detainees

Court instructs state to respond to request for asylum seekers to be exempted from staying overnight until sufficient heating is installed.

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People in Tel Aviv protest against the Holot detention facility, January 10, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Human rights groups on Sunday petitioned the High Court of Justice to order the state to provide heating for the asylum seekers being held at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel.

The petitioners asked the court to issue an interim order exempting detainees from the requirement to return to the facility at night until sufficient heating is installed, and to allow them to use personal heaters in their rooms. Justice Zvi Zylbertal instructed the state to respond to the request for the interim order by Tuesday afternoon.

The petitioners, including Hamoked for Refugees and Migrants, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Physicians for Human Rights, noted that Holot is located in a desert area where the average January temperature is 14 degrees Celsius during the day and 6 degrees Celsius at night.

The petition also stated that some 2,300 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, who cannot be deported, are being held at Holot.

“Despite the petrifying cold, the Israel Prison Service, which is in charge of Holot, does not supply electric heaters for the rooms nor does it allow the residents to bring in their own electric heaters and use them,” the petition said, adding, “The lack of electric heaters in the rooms is not a mistake or a matter of preparation; it is policy. That is, the problem of the cold is not a problem the respondents are unaware of, or had been asked to prepare for and have not yet done.”

The petitioners noted that during the facility’s planning, consideration was given to its location and the cold winter weather. Planners were aware of the conditions due to the presence of two nearby prisons, Saharonim and Ketziot. “The petitioners, who submitted their objections to the plan, presented the harsh weather as one of the biggest problems in the plan.”

Heating could have been installed in the dormitory rooms during the time the compound was under construction, “but the respondents chose not to do so,” the petition stated.

The prison service noted in its response that the dining room and club room were heated all the time. The petitioners responded that the detainees were not there all day and, in any case, these areas could not hold everyone.

The petition also noted that “as opposed to the dormitory rooms of the detainees, in the staff rooms – for the Israel Prison Service, the Population Authority, health services, etc. – heaters have, of course, been installed.”

ACRI’s attorney, Oded Feller, who filed the petition for the organizations, rejected the prison service claim that heaters are not allowed in the rooms due to fire hazards.

“As opposed to the concept of the respondents, the detainees at Holot are not children. They are independent adults. Just like those who work at the site who enjoy the heat without setting themselves on fire, the detainees know how to use electric heaters and how to take precautions.”

Feller said that even if there were concerns over a potential fire hazard, there were plenty of safe electric heating systems, but “the prison service did not install any of these.”

An affidavit was appended to the petition from a detainee whose name was given as Tashuma, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, who has been at Holot for the past 11 months. “From time to time, prison guards with helmets and armed with rifles conduct inspections of the rooms and check the personal possessions of the detainees. If they find electric heaters, they confiscate them,” the affidavit stated.

Tashuma added that because of the cold, he and his fellow detainees spend most of the day in bed, wearing layers of clothing to retain body heat. “I and many of my friends do not shower much during this time. The water is hot, but the shower room and dormitory rooms are not heated, and it is intolerable to undress in the freezing cold and get dressed after a shower,” he added.

Israel Prison Service responded yesterday, “Regretfully, the public pressure and misleading reports continue with regard to the situation at Holot. The prison service would like to make clear that the residents have areas that are heated the entire day, and distribution of blankets and coats continues, despite the meager demand.”

The prison service added that the regional commander of the service had recently told the media that it wasn’t “as extreme as some elements are trying to portray, probably because of their own agenda.”