Jailed for 17 Years With No Blood on His Hands,' No Luck

On January 26, 2005, Nimr Shaaban, 37, began his 17th year in prison. Shaaban, 37, is serving a 21-year sentence for 25 counts of throwing stones (as a minor), throwing Molotov cocktails at vehicles, and torching cars and a number of buildings. The driver of a bus at which Shaaban threw a Molotov cocktail was lightly injured.

"On the anniversary of my imprisonment," Shaaban wrote in Hebrew, "naturally I felt a little despairing and depressed. I couldn't fall asleep or do anything else. In the past, the custom among prisoners, especially the veteran ones, was that on the anniversary of an imprisonment, the prisoner would run double the time during sports hour in the morning. That is, instead of half an hour he would run for a whole hour, to show he was strong and persevering. During the Oslo period this custom disappeared, replaced by despair and disappointment."

Like other East Jerusalemites, Shaaban saw, from 1994 on, how the prisons were emptying of Palestinian prisoners convicted of crimes similar to his or worse. He decided to drown his frustration in studying, and he is now working toward a master's degree at the Israeli Open University. Exactly on his 17th anniversary, he was taking an exam for the course "Israeli Democracy - Selected Issues." From his point of view, he wrote, "it was like running for three hours, but by thinking and on paper."

In 1990, the Military Court in Lod was very harsh on the East Jerusalem Popular Front group to which he belonged, sentencing those convicted of crimes against property like the throwing of Molotov cocktails and the torching of vehicles and offices to 27 years in jail. These were crimes that did not involve "blood on the hands." The message to Jerusalemites was clear: As bearers of Israeli identity cards, their participation in the first intifada was defiance to be dealt with severely.

The Supreme Court recognized the severity of the sentence in its response to a petition in January 2000 by group member Othman Meragha against the refusal of the chief of staff to reduce his 27-year sentence. The justices rejected the petition, because they said other means of reducing the sentence were open to him (an appeal to the president, or another appeal to the chief of staff).

However, they also wrote "On the face of things, it appears that the sentence meted out to the petitioner is harsh, even considering the serious crimes of which he was convicted; moreover, all the crimes were committed when he was young ..."

Attorney Zaki Kamel, who is representing Shaaban before the parole committee, has been trying since July 2002 to obtain his client's parole, common when a prisoner is close to serving two-thirds of his sentence.

The parole committee turned down the request three times. Shaaban was unlucky. His parole request fell at the height of the second intifada. In refusing the request, the members of the committee noted specifically "the security situation at present" as a reason "the prisoner's release on parole at this time will endanger the public's welfare."

Committee members did not believe Shaaban's written declaration in November 2001 that he had long ago left the Popular Front. Outside of the prisons, hundreds of the organization's members left it during the `90s. But they didn't believe Shaaban. The fact that he devotes most of his time to studying didn't convince the committee either, nor did testimony that he is a calming influence and a mediator during periods of tension between prisoners and the prison command.

The committee also based its decision on "classified material" that it said indicated Shaaban was still active in the Popular Front. Shaaban and his attorney can only guess that the classified material involves the fact that he shares a cell together with Popular Front members, including his uncle. According to understandings reached over the years, prisoners are housed by organizational allegiance and/or with family members. Shaaban has expressed willingness to move to another cell, another block, another prison.

Kamel raised the issue before the parole committee that Jewish prisoners, some of whom are convicted murderers, have been released. In response, in July 2002, the committee wrote, "The prisoner's attorney argued that Jewish prisoners who had committed cold-blooded murder against Arabs do not in the final analysis complete their entire sentences, and receive pardons, and that there should be no discrimination between them and Arab citizens. The committee is prepared to accept the factual argument; however, there is nothing in it to impact the specific case."

Kamel also appealed twice to the Be'er Sheva District Court and once to the Supreme Court. They tossed the ball back to the parole committee. In September 2004, the district court asked the committee to "give priority" to another hearing of Shaaban's case. On October 10, 2004, Kamel asked the committee to give Shaaban the opportunity this time to confront the "classified material."

Shaaban, incarcerated at the Shikma prison in Ashkelon, is included in "the population census of the city of Ashkelon," he wrote in Hebrew. "Yet I have never set foot on its streets or walked around in it. I feel sometimes like doing small and strange things. Like for example, going by a school and hearing the students repeating letters or words after their teacher, or writing my name in the dust on a car window, or helping an old woman cross the street, and feeling the passing of the seasons and not hearing about them from the weather report on television."