East Jerusalem Bagel Vendor Gets 10-year Jail Term Over Unpaid Fines

Vender received thousands of tickets for operating without a license and the fines ballooned to a total of NIS 731,910.21.

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There’s a cell in Jerusalem’s Rimonim Prison that has two inmates. One was convicted of selling dozens of kilograms of dangerous drugs, and sentenced to six years. The second is Zaki Sabah, 54, who sells soft bagels and was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for not paying municipal fines imposed on him for peddling without a license.

Sabah, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiya, will probably be released once some kind of payment plan is worked out. But what is a bagel seller doing in prison in the first place, let alone with a harsher sentence than a drug trafficker?

The sentence was imposed two weeks ago by Local Affairs Court Judge Tamar Nimrodi. Her decision was a technical one, arrived at by aggregating 254 files opened against Sabah for peddling without a license. The thousands of tickets he received since 2005 had ballooned to fines totaling NIS 731,910.21. Because the nonpayment of any fine has a prescribed option of a few days in prison, the number of days that had accumulated totaled 3,554. Most of the hearings in his case were held in absentia, and since he had not reached a payment arrangement with the municipality, the judge consolidated the cases and approved the cumulative imprisonment orders. Shortly after the ruling, Sabah was imprisoned.

Following his attorney Amir Schneidscher’s request to the court, the municipality agreed to release Sabah if he paid 10 percent of the debt, around NIS 80,000. Jerusalem Magistrate’ Court Judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Zaban then ruled he could be released for only NIS 8,000, but Sabah said he could not come up with that amount, either, and remained behind bars.

In an urgent request to the court, Schneidscher demanded his client’s release, claiming that the sentence was illegal because the statute of limitations of three years had run out on many of the offenses, and because a local affairs court is not authorized to mete out sentences longer than seven years. The attorney added that the regulations regarding informing and warning the defendant were not observed in Sabah’s case.

This is not the first time Sabah was imprisoned over accumulated fines. He was jailed in 2003 and served 11 months. In 2008, then Jerusalem District Court Judge Zvi Zylbertal ruled that incarceration illegal because the city had not informed and warned him as required by law. Sabah won compensation of NIS 523,000 for false imprisonment.

While pretzel sellers and other vendors are an integral part of the scene in Jerusalem’s Old City, the municipality has been cracking down on illegal peddlers in recent years, while making it increasingly difficult to get a peddling license.

The Jerusalem municipality responded that Sabah had been a scofflaw for years. The city noted he had hired a private lawyer to petition the court against his immediate imprisonment, and said he “chose not to pay” the NIS 8,000 mandated by the court, which is one percent of his debt.

The municipality also noted that “contrary to the claim that he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, the law in these cases ... limits the term of imprisonment to three years.”

Zaki Sabah selling beigele outside the Old City. Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

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