Israeli Police Resume Pre-coronavirus Routine, but Suspects Still Face Lockdown Restrictions

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Police make an arrest in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, June 2020.
Police make an arrest in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The police appear to have resumed their pre-coronavirus routine, with the level of arrests made by the police nearing that before the pandemic – while suspects continue to be denied the right to appear before the court hearing their case.

At the height of the country’s first wave of infection several weeks ago, there were 2,433 criminal suspects in custody, the Public Defender’s Office in the Justice Ministry reported. That has risen to 3,060.

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Since the outbreak began, suspects have been participating in hearings remotely, usually by video conference, but sometimes through a cellphone speaker. This week, the country’s prison service resumed bringing suspects to court, but the Public Defender’s Office said this has not been happening in all cases. This follows a decision last week that, until legislation on the subject is passed, suspects would be physically brought to court for their first substantive hearing, unless they ask otherwise. But even that has not been fully observed, and the frequent changes in procedure have caused confusion.

Technical glitches have plagued proceedings, such as a remand hearing this week for Ibrahim al-Sarahin, suspected of entering Israel illegally and stealing a car. As a result of health guidelines, the hearing was held in court, but he participated by videoconference from a detention center only about 150 meters (500 feet) away. As in hundreds of other cases, the video connection was poor. The suspect repeatedly told the court he couldn’t hear, and the judge only looked briefly at the suspect’s image on the screen, at the beginning of the hearing.

“Exchanging a suspect’s physical presence for a virtual presence renders him invisible,” Cristina Hilu Asad, department director at the Public Defender’s Office, said. “The government can’t have it both ways, on the one hand seriously infringing on basic rights based on the risk of infection, and on the other hand continuing to make arrests as usual as if that risk doesn’t exist.”

The police said in a statement for this article that “the decision regarding the detention of a suspect is only made after serious consideration” of factors including the needs of the investigation, the severity of the offense, the risk of obstruction of the investigation and the evidence in the file. “The Israel Police does not view the detention of an individual as punishment and resorts to this option only when the investigation requires it based on grounds provided by law,” police said. 

The Finance Ministry is seeking to make the use of teleconferencing the norm even after the coronavirus pandemic – for hearings on extending a suspect’s time in detention. The permanent use of videoconferencing, which has become a practice in a number of countries, including some courts in the United States, would save the Treasury an estimated 40 million shekels ($11.6 million) a year.

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has a bill before it that would give the public security minister and the justice minister the authority on a month-to-month basis to permit continued use of video conference for hearings on extending suspects’ remand because of the pandemic. The police are interested in continuing the practice to save time during the interrogation of suspects, and the prison service is in favor because it spares them from transporting and guarding suspects who are brought to court. The Public Defender’s Office, meanwhile, has remained adamantly opposed.

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