Palestinians who were imprisoned in Israeli jails for national security offenses are being given one short telephone call with a first-degree relative, a High Court challenge of emergency coronavirus regulations that impose special restrictions on security prisoners until at least May 15 and that barred such prisoners from calling outside the prison.
In announcing the change, the government said the step is being taken on the occasion of the current Muslim holy month of Ramadan and would also apply to prisoners who are not in detention on national security-related grounds but who are infected with the coronavirus. The move is in response to two petitions filed with the High Court of Justice by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual.
The emergency coronavirus regulations bar visits to all prisoners not only by relatives but also by the prisoners’ lawyers. The temporary rules permit prisoners incarcerated in connection with offenses unrelated to national security to receive videoconference phone calls, but barred security prisoners from having calls of any kind with members of their families.
Even during normal times, security prisoners are prohibited from speaking to their families on the telephone, but they are allowed visits. The cancellation of these visits during the coronavirus pandemic has meant that they were deprived of contact with anyone outside the prison.
Non-security prisoners are also currently being permitted regular contact with their lawyers, while security prisoners have been allowed one call with their lawyers prior to court hearings and another following the hearings. That is of a limited importance to many security prisoners because hearings are only being held on urgent matters during the pandemic.
At a hearing on the High Court petitions at the beginning of April, Omri Epstein of the State Prosecutor’s Office said the Israel Prison Service had no way of overseeing security prisoners’ calls to ascertain that they are actually speaking to their lawyers. Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz said in response that the prison service has means of doing so and that a solution must be found in cases in which there is a genuine need for access to the courts. He added that even during normal times, the prison service is barred from monitoring in-person meetings between prisoners and their lawyers.
For his part, Epstein, of the prosecutor’s office, said that prisoners are able to file court petitions on their own, without a lawyer.
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Following the hearing, the state proposed that prisoners who have no upcoming hearings but who wished to consult with a lawyer could do so by fax or letter. In response, the petitioners argued that in practice, this would make it impossible for prisoners to consult with their lawyers and would deprive them of immediate and confidential legal advice.
In a letter at the end of April to the prison service commission, Adalah wrote that, due to the absence of family visits during the pandemic, some prisoners have also had no money to make purchases at the prison canteen. The organization demanded that the issue be addressed but says it has not yet received a response.
“When the coronavirus crisis began, the state was quick to use emergency regulations to deny prisoners their fundamental constitutional rights without even a minimal connection to the purpose of stopping the spread of the pandemic,” Aiah Haj Odeh, a lawyer for Adalah, stated. “On the other hand, we are finding it difficult in our many requests to the authorities to receive satisfactory answers regarding the actions that are necessary to ensure the health of the prisoners in light of the situation.”
“Not only is the government acting in complete violation of its authority,” she claimed. “It also is taking advantage of the emergency situation to exacerbate the denial of the prisoners’ rights, which have also been trampled during normal times. Just as the Israel Prison Service has provided alternatives to protect the criminal prisoners’ right to have contact with their families and for access to the courts – including videoconferencing – we demand that the issue be resolved for those defined as security prisoners.”