Knesset Passes Coronavirus Bill Giving Cabinet Members Power to Bar Prisoners From Court

The law gives the authority to the justice and public security ministers, on evidence from the Health Ministry that court appearances could encourage the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, but Knesset can override decision

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Public Security Minister Amir Ohana
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, June 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset passed legislation on Monday that authorizes the justice minister and the public security minister to bar prisoners and other detainees from attending legal proceedings in person when it is deemed necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The new law also gives the Knesset the authority to reverse the decision.

The legislation was passed out of concern that the detainees could be infected with COVID-19 in court and then infect others in prison when they return from their hearings. If they are barred from attending in person, they would participate in their hearings via videoconference or by phone from the prisons where they are being held.

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The law requires the ministers, currently Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, to base any such order on the professional opinion of the Health Ministry regarding the risk that in-person court attendance would pose of a coronavirus outbreak in prisons. It also gives the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee the right to convene after the order is issued and to revoke it. If the committee does not revoke the order, it is valid for two weeks.

Knesset member Yoav Segalovitz of the opposition Yesh Atid-Telem faction, who is a former Israel Police major general, criticized giving authority to issue such an order to two cabinet ministers. “The prisoner population is the weakest group in society. It has no representation or lobby. This is a bizarre situation in which two ministers can decide alone, without the full cabinet, not to bring detainees and prisoners to court – in other words denying them their basic rights. The Knesset’s approval comes after the fact, and after the fact has become the key word during these times.”

Yesh Atid-Telem Knesset member Yoav Segalovitz
Knesset member Yoav Segalovitz Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

This is an apparent reference to emergency authority given to the cabinet to enact coronavirus restrictions that the Knesset also has the right to rescind after the fact.

The new law also came in for criticism from Joint List Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman, who addressed her comments in the Knesset chamber to Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis, who represented the government at the session. “Stop this campaign of trampling human rights, even if they are detainees or prisoners. One of their basic rights is to stand facing the legal system and to make their case” without potential technical problems with a Zoom teleconference session, she said.

In March, Ohana, who was justice minister at the time, temporarily suspended court hearings around the country, with the exception of urgent matters, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The suspension, which led to the deferral for a time of the corruption case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came only four hours after a news conference in which the government’s emergency coronavirus policies were announced, without mentioning the courts.

Last month, Ohana began advocating for the passage of another bill that would authorize him to prevent prisoners from meeting face-to-face with their lawyers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country’s prisons.

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