An Israeli military court has sentenced a homeless man to three days’ detention for lacking the funds to travel to the court in order to testify in a case against a soldier.
The man lives in the southern city of Eilat and was involved in the case, but the court ordered him to be arrested and brought to Jaffa. The judge kept the man in custody until the hearing to ensure that he appeared in court to give his testimony.
Sergei (an alias), 31, is a new immigrant and a drug addict. Due to personal and mental health issues he lives on the street and in public parks in Eilat. He never served in the army but his name came up in a case investigated by military police, in which an Israel Defense Forces soldier was arrested on suspicion of trafficking in light drugs.
The investigation raised suspicion that the soldier had trafficked drugs through the Telegrass distribution network, using the Telegram app. A search of his mobile phone brought up Sergei’s name as someone who had purchased two grams of hashish from him.
After several days, military police investigators succeeded in locating Sergei in Eilat and took him in for questioning. He cooperated with investigators; since he doesn’t speak Hebrew, through a translator he admitted to buying drugs from the soldier.
Following the investigation, military prosecutors decided to charge the soldier, with Sergei expected to testify for the prosecution. He was not suspected of any wrongdoing and was told that he had to come to the military court in Jaffa only to testify.
In a conversation he had with military prosecutors, Sergei said he was willing to come and testify but noted that he couldn’t manage that on his own since he had no money for a round-trip ticket from Eilat to Tel Aviv. He added that he has no family or acquaintances in Israel with whom he could stay on the day he testified. He said that if they sent a taxi or covered his bus fare, he would come and testify.
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Ahead of the trial, prosecutors told Sergei that they would reimburse him for the trip, but he told them he didn’t have the money to pay up front. Prosecutors notified the court and asked it to instruct military police to bring him to court. Prosecutors added that there was no reason to arrest Sergei for not being able to come, and that he had agreed to cooperate. However, the military judge did not accept the prosecutors’ proposal and ordered Sergei’s arrest as part of a habeas corpus injunction, authorizing military police to detain Sergei for 24 hours to ensure his court appearance.
Sergei was arrested on January 14, while the trial was scheduled for January 16. He was brought to the military court in Jaffa on January 15 to discuss his release. During those 24 hours he was handcuffed and moved around from one detention facility to another.
Military advocates who usually represent only soldiers assisted Sergei. They argued that he had no funds and that conditioning his release on financial guarantees meant continued incarceration. A defense attorney proposed that instead of being reimbursed for his travel, he should be given a travel voucher so that he could come to Jaffa without spending a night in jail. An alternate plan was that military police would bring him from Eilat for the trial. He noted that two other witnesses in the same trial who had refused to testify were released with a commitment to come to the trial, without being required to leave a deposit.
However, the court ruled that given Sergei’s inability to purchase a ticket, there was no guarantee that he would show up. Furthermore, the court ruled that he could be released only after depositing a sum of 3,000 shekels ($867) as a guarantee. Lacking these funds, Sergei had to remain in jail for another night.
“This was a heart-wrenching case,” said one military defense attorney. “Sergei was arrested only because he couldn’t pay for a bus ticket, and because of a bureaucracy that would not provide a travel voucher, only offering a reimbursement.
"There was no reason to serve him with an arrest warrant. Sergei should have received help in coming to the hearing some other way and there was no room for setting conditions on his release which he clearly could not meet, only to ensure his appearance in court the next day. One must remember that Sergei was not charged with anything, yet he spent three days in jail, only for lacking any financial means,” the military defense attorney added.