From Persecution in Sudan to Prison in Israel

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Pomidin. 'Holot is a jail... A person’s needs aren’t limited to food, drink and medicine. The most important is to be free.'Credit: David Bachar

Pomidin was brought to court earlier this year with his arms and legs shackled, like a dangerous criminal. The judge asked whether he preferred the open detention center at Holot to Saharonim Prison. After saying yes, Pomidin threw up and fainted. At that moment, he lost all hope.

“They should have freed me, not put me in jail,” he said. “Holot is a jail. Holot is the same thing as Saharonim. ... A person’s needs aren’t limited to food, drink and medicine. The most important is to be free.”

Pomidin, a Sudanese national, spent almost two and a half years in an Israeli jail. He had the bad luck to arrive a few days after a law came into force that allowed asylum seekers who cross the border illegally to be jailed for three years. Thus he found himself in Saharonim for about 18 months.

In September 2013, the High Court of Justice overturned the law and ordered all the asylum seekers freed. It gave the state 90 days to comply. Though most were indeed freed, about 500, including Pomidin, were kept in jail. And just before the 90 days expired, the Knesset passed a new law authorizing asylum seekers to be held at Holot. Pomidin and the others were sent there straight from Saharonim.

A few days later, hundreds of asylum seekers left Holot and marched to Jerusalem to protest the new law and demand their freedom. Pomidin said he doesn’t regret the decision to demonstrate instead of simply leaving Holot and not returning, as others did. But most of the demonstrators, including him, were arrested and sent to Saharonim. Later, he was returned to Holot.

Only in October, after 28 months in prison, was he finally released, pursuant to September’s High Court ruling overturning the law that authorized detention at Holot. He left Holot with nothing but a set of clothes received from friends and social activists.

Since he was released, he has shared an apartment in Ashdod with friends he met in jail. They also helped him get a job building wooden pallets.

This isn’t how Pomidin envisioned life in Israel. Back in Sudan, he was a university student and anti-government activist. But as the government intensified its war on rebels from Darfur, Pomidin’s home province, his family could no longer finance his studies. He returned to Darfur in hopes of getting his family out before it was too late.

“I was there when the militias attacked my village,” he recalled. “My grandmother was killed before my eyes. My sister was raped by the militias. My mother tried to protect her, but they beat her.”

Finally, the family fled to a refugee camp in the mountains. But Pomidin still feared for his life, so in June 2012, he left his family behind and fled. It took him three days to reach the Egyptian-Israeli border; the smugglers charged him $500 and left him there.

“The Egyptian army shot at us,” he said. “On the Israeli side the army helped us; they opened the fence so we could enter. We were with women and children. The Israeli army gave us food and medicine. From there, they took me to Saharonim.”

“I fled from persecution in my country and then I was jailed here,” he added. “It was a shock.”

Nor was Holot much better than Saharonim, he said. “There’s no difference between them. The only difference is that you have the opportunity of leaving for a short time and then returning.”

Having spent all his time in Israel in jail, Pomidin speaks no Hebrew. Nor does he know much English. He spoke in Arabic while another Sudanese asylum seeker translated.

In January, aided by lawyers from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Pomidin asked the Be’er Sheva District Court to release him from Holot. In August, Judge Eliahu Bitan rejected the petition, saying that by law the state could hold him, even though it hadn’t yet examined the asylum request he submitted 18 months earlier, and even though he didn’t meet the criteria the Interior Ministry itself set for detention in Holot.

“There are indications that most of the infiltrators came to Israel for the purpose of working and bettering their lives,” Bitan wrote in his ruling. He also noted that Pomidin had been interviewed about his asylum request in June, so he could expect an answer “very soon.” Meanwhile, Pomidin is still waiting.

His attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court. But two days before the October 7 hearing, he was suddenly freed from Holot. The justices consequently deemed his appeal superfluous, but also criticized the lower court ruling. “The wording was rather unfortunate, to put it mildly,” Justice Hanan Melcer wrote.

As they left the court, Pomidin asked his lawyer, Asaf Weitzen, why he had been freed but others hadn’t. Weitzen had no good answer. This week, he asked the High Court to order the release of all 138 Sudanese and Eritrean nationals who have been jailed for more than two years under the two laws the court has since overturned.

“I suffered so much in my country, and then in Israel,” Pomidin said. “I’ve completely lost hope after two and a half years in jail. In the end, they freed me and I’m happy, but not so much. My friends are still in jail. They’re suffering like I suffered. Some of my friends arrived before me, and they’re still in jail. This doesn’t allow me to be happy.”

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