The Knesset’s legal department said on Monday that the Prison Service should examine requests by lawmakers wishing to visit security prisoners, allowing them to proceed whenever possible, until a final judicial ruling is made.
The statement came in response to a petition for a temporary injunction on the permanent prohibition for visits by members of the legislature, filed by Yousef Jabareen, a parliamentarian from the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, and Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Security prisoners are convicts, most often Palestinians, imprisoned for crimes committed with the intention to harm the state of Israel, or with nationalistic motives.
Jabareen and Adalah are demanding that the prohibition on lawmaker visits to these prisoners, which was issued in December 2016, be rescinded, and are asking for an urgent hearing of this petition, which has been dragging since 2017. They argue that the prohibition prevents lawmakers from fulfilling their oversight role over the carceral branch of the Israeli executive.
On Monday, the government responded to the petition, contending the injunction should be denied. The government added that since restrictions have been put in place in order to prevent coronavirus infections, the prisoners have received visits by Red Cross officials. A prisoner who wishes to complain about his conditions in detention can file a petition independently, the government argued.
The December 2016 prohibition was issued by a Knesset committee and followed by a Prison Service order in 2017. It came in the wake of a case in which Basel Ghattas, a lawmaker from the Balad faction of the Joint List, tried to smuggle mobile phones and documents to Palestinian security prisoners at Ketziot Prison. Ghattas was convicted and spent two years in prison.
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In May 2017, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan authorized four Knesset members to visit security prisoners. These were Robert Ilatov from Yisrael Beiteinu, Meir Cohen from Yesh Atid, Bezalel Smotrich from Yamina and Osama Saadi from the Joint List. But the Knesset confirmed on Monday that this dispensation was only valid for the 20th Knesset, which was dissolved after the April 2019 election. No lawmakers were authorised to conduct visits in the subsequent 21st, 22nd and 23rd Knesset terms.
In June 2019, the Prison Service presented a plan according to which one Knesset member from each party would be allowed to visit security prisoners, with visits conducted under strict supervision by the Service. The Knesset said that this plan did not “give appropriate weight to the role of Knesset members as monitors of the executive branch,” adding that the tight supervision by the Prison Service would detract from the effectiveness of the Knesset’s oversight.
Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the state has forbidden family members and attorneys from visiting these prisoners. They cannot call their attorneys for routine consultations either. Last week, the state approved one-time, brief calls to prisoners’ families, in response to a petition. At the same time, Adalah filed a petition for a temporary injunction regarding conditions at the Gilboa Prison, where six prisoners share cells reported to have an average area of 22 square meters (237 square feet).
MK Jabareen said that “visiting security prisoners is part of our parliamentary duty in monitoring the human rights of these prisoners. Some of these prisoners are under administrative detention [without charge], some are minors, some are held under unacceptable conditions. The attempt to prevent visits is a serious blow to us as representatives of the public and is in contradiction to our immunity as lawmakers. Specifically in this crisis period, when the condition of political prisoners is unknown, there is great importance in holding these visits and in monitoring the conduct of the authorities.”
Adallah says that “the state’s response does not address the immediate need for parliamentary oversight over the conditions under which security prisoners are held, a need that has received the backing of the Knesset. This is doubly important since these prisoners are at risk during the coronavirus crisis, in addition to the heavy fog imposed on what is happening inside prisons these days. If that weren’t enough, the state in its response disregarded the restrictions that were placed on prisoners using emergency rules, which deprive them of legal counsel and thus of access to the courts.”