When Will Marwan Barghouti’s Cellmate Go Free?

Until a week ago, Majd Ziadeh shared a cell with the most well-known Palestinian in an Israeli prison. His family say they don't know where he is now

Mahmoud Ziadeh, 62, the father of Majd Ziadeh, in Ramallah, April 2017.
Amira Hass

Until the start of this week’s hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, Majd Ziadeh shared a cell with Marwan Barghouti in Israel’s Hadarim Prison. One of the first steps the Israel Prison Service took against the hunger strikers was to transfer and disperse them to other jails. It has been reported that Barghouti was moved into solitary confinement; Ziadeh’s family say they do not know where Majd is now.

Until March, Ziadeh, 35, had 15 years left to serve on his 30-year sentence. He had been arrested in 2002 and convicted a year later. But on March 27, the Military Court of Appeals made an extremely rare decision and reduced his sentence by a third, to 20 years.

The three judges accepted the arguments of Ziadeh’s lawyer, Labib Habib, of serious flaws in the judicial process in which his client was tried and sentenced (and during his first appeal 12 years ago), which led to a severe and disproportionate verdict and sentence compared to the accepted level of punishment. As evidence, two of his accomplices for some of the acts – and who, according to the indictment, committed even more serious offenses – were sentenced to only 15 years in prison.

Majd’s father, Mahmoud Ziadeh, 62, expected his son to be released immediately, so the ruling was both joyful and bitter. On a quiet Friday in a cafe in Ramallah, he told Haaretz in his low, slow, hesitant voice about the arrest. The Israeli soldiers broke into their building and woke people up at 2 A.M. on April 2, 2002. They arrested the father and son, along with a few neighbors. Mahmoud was sure this was just part of the mass arrests the IDF was routinely carrying out during the difficult period of the second intifada.

As a political activist in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and labor unions, Mahmoud had been arrested in the 1980s, held under house arrest and five times without trial as an administrative detainee. His infant son Majd was present during a number of the arrests.

“Majd tried to encourage me, even when he was 2 years old and saw the soldiers attacking me at home,” Mahmoud recalled. “‘It’s no big deal, Mahmoud,’ I remember him telling me. When he grew up and I was in prison again, he watched over his little sisters. Shared the responsibility together with his mother, Lutfiyeh.” Mahmoud has not been active in the Democratic Front since the early 1990s, but has remained active to this day in struggles for workers’ rights.

The soldiers led Mahmoud and Majd, and about 10 of their neighbors, around Ramallah on foot. A tank trundled behind the marchers. Mahmoud Ziadeh thinks such a spectacular arrest – about a dozen people blindfolded and handcuffed, being marched through the dark streets – was intended to intimidate. Later, they were taken in an armored vehicle to a settlement, but Mahmoud does not know which one.

The father was released, but not his son. He found this unbearable, especially that he did not know his son had joined the Fatah movement’s grassroots Tanzim faction as early as 1999. “He loved soccer, he always had friends over, never spoke about politics,” said Mahmoud. “But I could conclude that he – like all of us – was frustrated by the situation. During his school vacations, he worked a little in restaurants, made money and gave it to his sisters. Sometimes he would take his mother’s car keys and drive without a license. We would argue with him about it.”

Majd Ziadeh. Sentenced to 30 years in 2003, but had his sentence reduced by 10 years in March.

Worse than the arrest was the day when the verdict was handed down. Based on what his lawyer at the time had said, they expected Majd to serve seven or eight years in prison. “We felt the whole world was falling on us,” recalled Mahmoud. “Since then, we have been living in shock from the vengeful verdict. We know full well what the occupation is, but the punishment exceeded everything we expected or knew.”

During these years, Mahmoud Ziadeh – an ex-detainee – discovered how difficult imprisonment is on a prisoner’s family. “True, imprisonment is part of the lives of Palestinians under occupation, but it is an unnatural part. The occupation is not natural. Natural is to rebel. There is not a day that Majd was not with us, especially for his mother: Drinking, eating, going to work at the Red Crescent [association], coming home from work, he was with her. She waited 13 years but couldn’t any longer. I don’t know how long I can wait. We are always calculating: Will I live another 15 years to see him when he gets out? To see him fall in love, find a life partner?”

Something happened

Until 2008, the parents were not allowed to visit their son. No reason was given. Only his little sister visited him. Since then, sometimes they received permission for regular visits; sometimes not. No explanation was given. When Lutfiyeh was diagnosed with cancer and her condition deteriorated, she was allowed to meet with her son in Ofer Prison, near Ramallah. She arrived in an ambulance; he was brought in from a different prison. They were allowed to hug, kiss and take photographs. Until the day she died, two years ago, she believed her son would be released before the 30 years would pass. She believed something would happen to prove this was an unjust verdict, like the verdict of the military court judges to reject his appeal.

And something did happen. A family friend told Habib about the case. Habib read the case file and, to his surprise, discovered the first prominent flaw, which the military prosecution and Military Court of Appeals had no choice but to admit: the judges in the 2005 appeal had rejected Ziadeh’s appeal based on the first indictment filed against him – not the later version for which he was actually tried, and which included only eight of the original 16 charges from the first indictment.

This serious mistake was made by the first appeals panel, consisting of judges Col. Eli Wolf, Col. Moshe Tirosh and Lt. Col. Yaakov Rubin. Habib pointed out two other gross violations of the basic rules of criminal law: the amended indictment was not read out to the defendant at the beginning of the legal process, only in a meeting in which an agreement with the prosecution was presented to the judges; and the defense was unable to see some of the evidence presented, even though it had not been ordered to be kept secret.

The family and Habib thought one of the most serious flaws was that the judges – both in the original trial and in the first appeal – punished Majd Ziadeh for the things he said at the end of his trial.

The courtroom transcript records Ziadeh as saying: “When I stood up, I did not stand out of honor for the court, but out of honor for my family who came to see me. You are judges and you need to be fair, and fairness says these soldiers need to come sit with us as prisoners because they are killing us. When they kill us, no one judges them. But when we kill, they judge us and put us in prison for a long time. Your blood is not dearer than our blood. I am not a person who hates Jews or Israelis. I hate the occupation, and in the end you can sentence me to as much as you want, it does not matter to me at all. Any punishment you impose on me will be a badge of honor on my chest.”

In the initial trial, the judges wrote – among their justifications for the severe sentence – that “in his final words, the defendant proved he carried out his acts out of ideology. The defendant did not express any remorse for his terrible deeds.”

The first appeals court judges, who decided to leave the sentence as it was, wrote, “The greater the punishment, it seems the more honorable the medal on the chest of the appellant in his own eyes – and who are we to intervene in that?”

Discriminatory punishment

Ziadeh did not kill. The amended indictment included the crimes of membership in the Tanzim; shooting at a military base; shooting at soldiers on the roof of a Palestinian house; accompanying others who fired at Israeli vehicles near the settlement of Beit El; and giving his car to someone who said he used it to commit an armed attack.

The indictment included another charge: That he convinced two friends to take revenge for the assassination of another activist. Ziadeh drove the car, while his two friends fired at an Israeli vehicle near Beit El. One person was injured – a Palestinian from Beit Hanina.

Habib wrote in his request to reject the decision of the first appeals panel: “The appellant wishes to point out he is not motivated by the hatred of Jews or Israelis, but by hatred of the occupation and the injustice caused because of it. He stressed the sense of deprivation, the discrimination in punishments between Jews and Palestinians ... these are legitimate matters. The prohibition against double standards is one of the most serious in Jewish jurisprudence. The principle of equality is in our souls. The fact the appellant notes that he has no hatred in his heart is a very important thing, both for understanding his personality and the possibility of his rehabilitation,” wrote Habib.

Now, Mahmoud Ziadeh’s thoughts are focused on the prisoners’ hunger strike: How his son is handling it; how it will affect his chronic ear infection; how many times he will be shaken in the trucks taking him from prison to prison (which is torture even when you are not on hunger strike); and how vengeful the Israel Prison Service will be. These concerns of the father – a longtime political activist himself – are vying with his support for the steps taken by his son and fellow comrades.