Public Defender Slams Abuse of African Migrants' Rights

African migrants suspected of crime get detained for unduly long periods, office says.

The Public Defender's Office is taking immigration and law enforcement authorities to task for the way they deal with illegal African migrants allegedly involved in crime. The defender's office says implicating the migrants in crimes has provided the basis for unduly long detention of migrants from Africa, even if they are suspected of minor crimes for which there is insufficient evidence to put them on trial.

In an unusual step, the Public Defender's Office filed a request with the Supreme Court Monday seeking to be added in an advisory capacity - as a "friend of the court" - in a case challenging the detention of migrants under such circumstances. The request to the court takes the position that the authorities' treatment of the migrants creates a parallel justice system that improperly discriminates against the migrants.

The case before the court was filed at the initiative of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which is representing a Sudanese national who was jailed after being accused of robbing a fellow Sudanese migrant. The Hotline's client is married and the father of three children and has been held in the detention center at Saharonim in the Negev for the past nine months. He claims he is not familiar with his accuser. A lawyer filed an appeal to the Supreme Court challenging a district court decision that denied the detained man the right to go free. The state responded that the appeal should be denied on its face. A hearing on the case is scheduled for Thursday of next week.

At the beginning of the month, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein approved a change in procedure at the request of the Interior Ministry and the police making it easier for the authorities to detain migrants implicated in crime. The Justice Ministry said the revised procedure strikes an "appropriate balance" between the interests of illegal migrants allegedly involved in crime and "enhancing the sense of security of the Israeli public and reducing real harm to public order."

In the past, detention of migrants was only allowed on suspicion of the commission of a crime deemed to endanger the security of the state or public welfare. The revised guidelines permit the detention of a migrant suspected of commission of an offense that "involves real harm to public order." This includes relatively low-level property crimes such as the theft of a bicycle or cell phone.

'Serious infringement on liberty'

The Public Defender's Office is taking the position that the legal procedure used in detaining migrants implicated in crimes, under which hundreds of African migrants are detained, is a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. "The practice leads to serious and entirely disproportionate infringement on liberty," the office wrote in its filing with the court, "and with the wave of a hand, deprives those subject to it of minimal procedural defenses that are required for such infringement. Among other things, it sets a low evidentiary threshold for prolonged deprivation of liberty. It does not allow for a significant [right to be] heard, [and deprives detainees] of the right to examine the evidence [against them]."

The brief filed by the Public Defender's Office also claimed that those detained are not afforded a chance to present witnesses and evidence to refute the allegations against them, or to cross-examine witnesses against them, and that the detention procedure lacks effective judicial oversight. "The use of the procedure leads to a phenomenon that the defender's office is unaware of regarding any other population groups," the brief states. "The defender has been faced over and over with instances in which by virtue of this procedure, clients against whom evidence was weak or who have been accused of minor offenses have been jailed for extended periods of time. There have also been cases in which clients have quickly been taken into custody without protecting their legal rights."

Alon Ron