Israel's Prosecution Duels With the Probation Service Over Polygamy Charges

Bedouin convicted of crime claims he did nothing wrong as Sharia court recognized his marriage

Sharia court in Be'er Sheva, November 2018
Ilan Assayag

The Probation Service has recommended that a Negev resident convicted of polygamy do 60 hours of community service in a Rahat school, while prosecutors want the man to serve seven to 18 months in prison.

“This violation undermines public order in an enlightened society and as such it must be dealt with seriously and uprooted,” the prosecution said.

Amin Abu-Sakik, 34, a resident of Arara, is married to two women. Since the prosecution resumed enforcing the law against polygamy in January 2017, Abu-Sakik is the only man who has been convicted. According to the indictment, Abu-Sakik married for the first time in 2006, and in 2017 he took a Palestinian wife 12 years his junior. Five days after he signed that marriage contract, he went to the Sharia Islamic Court in Be’er Sheva to register the marriage and the court approved it six days later, the indictment said. Abu-Sakik affirmed the allegations and on the basis of that was convicted by the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court.

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“We believe that the recommendation is contrary to the rules of the Supreme Court, deviates significantly from sentencing policy and does not conform to the principle of adequacy,” Montilyo-Segal said. “The Probation Service examines the interest of the defendant, while the court weighs a variety of interests in the matter.”

Montilyo-Segal made a lengthy argument about the “protected principles” that are undermined in polygamous families, first and foremost the status of women in Bedouin society. She added that polygamous marriage harms “the character of the State of Israel and a democratic state that promotes equality between the sexes.”

During the hearing it was noted that Abu-Sakik did not attempt to hide his polygamy. He went to the Sharia court (a state body) at his own initiative, declared that this was his second marriage and the court approved it. The prosecution responded that the Sharia court’s approval affirmed that the marriage had been conducted in accordance with religious law, but this doesn’t mean it was permitted under the penal code.

Despite his confession, Abu-Sakik does not believe he did anything wrong. “If you want to change reality, first deal with those who marry without informing anyone. This is a democratic country – if our religions are not respected, why do we live here?”

Abu-Sakik’s attorney stressed that his client can afford to support two wives. “He owns a trucking and metal company that takes in millions of shekels a year. He has no financial problems,” Jamal said. He said Abu-Sakik took a second wife after his first wife took ill and had to undergo medical treatment. Jamal added that there’s no reason to punish a man who did not hide his marriage or try to deceive anyone.

Abu-Sakik’s conviction is the first legal achievement for the prosecution since Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared war on polygamy, common mainly in Bedouin society. As part of this effort, a team headed by Justice Ministry Director General Ami Palmor was established to find ways to halt the phenomenon, while a legal team headed by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit worked on formulating criminal enforcement guidelines. The law against polygamy was passed in 1977.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit published a new directive in 2017 saying that in cases with a sufficient evidentiary basis, indictments would be issued and the prosecution would seek a sentence that includes prison time. This was also meant as a warning to the public at large that polygamous unions created from this point forward would be subject to heavier enforcement.

Since the first indictment on charges of polygamy following Shaked’s announcement and until mid-October, 15 more indictments have been served. But the figures show that most of the cases have been closed because of Mendelblit’s directive not to press charges in cases of marriages that took place before the new guidelines were published. Polygamists who took another wife before January 2017 will not be prosecuted, Mendelblit said, other than in exceptional cases such as marriage to a minor or violence.

According to the figures provided by the prosecution to Haaretz as part of the Freedom of Information Law, so far the prosecution has opened 351 cases involving polygamy, of which 297 have been closed without indictment, 35 cases are still under review and 16 indictments have been filed. Three cases have been given over to another prosecuting body.

Precise figures on polygamy in Israel are hard to come by, because in many cases, women are smuggled into Israel for polygamous marriages. A committee set up to examine the matter concluded that although the state has not allocated the resources to properly assess the phenomenon, about 18.5 percent of men with families in Bedouin society in the Negev [some 6,179] are involved in polygamous marriages.