When Justice Isn’t Blind, but Blinding

Mustafa al-Kharouf
Oren Ziv

Attorney Adi Lustigman stood as if blindfolded and handcuffed in Courtroom 301 at Jerusalem District Court on Sunday, explaining why Jerusalem Palestinian news photographer Mustafa al-Kharouf should be released from a detention facility for people about to be expelled from the country. Al-Kharouf has been held in that prison without trial for the past 70 days.

Lustigman was also explaining why it was impossible to expel al-Kharouf to Jordan, per the Interior Ministry’s demand, given that he is neither a citizen nor resident of the kingdom, just as he has no linkage or status in any other country in the world.

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District Court Judge Eli Abarvanel listened politely, and also politely noted that the babbling coming from al-Kharouf’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Asia, was distracting. An aunt took the child out of the courtroom. Mustafa al-Kharouf’s wife, Tamam, stayed to hear the proceedings, even though she couldn’t understand them because they were in Hebrew.

The small courtroom was filled with Mustafa’s relatives, as well as photographer and journalist colleagues of his. It was only the 31-year-old Mustafa himself who was not present. The court had forgotten to have him brought to the hearing from Givon prison.

Judge Abarvanel didn’t remove the invisible handcuffs and blindfold. After all, he was about to review confidential intelligence information which served the Interior Ministry in its decision to expel al-Kharouf to a nowhere land, and to reject his request for a family unification with his wife and daughter, both residents of Jerusalem.

The authority of the Shin Bet overrules legal proceedings and the concept of innocence, even when a person is not accused of anything. That is why an unnamed lawyer from the Shin Bet sat at the respondents’ bench, next to Racheli Avraham, the attorney for the state. On behalf of the Interior Ministry, she responded to al-Kharouf’s petition challenging the intention to expel him and the rejection of the family unification request. The two were soon to be joined by another Shin Bet representative, whose holy anonymity and the sacred confidentiality of his alleged information dictated that everyone appearing on the appellant’s behalf leave the room, including Lustigman.

As in cases of administrative detention, Lustigman had to defend her client without the benefit of seeing the alleged evidence against him. As in cases of administrative detention, Israel is punishing her client by cutting him off for an unlimited duration from his family.

In al-Kharouf’s case, it is to be followed by expulsion from the country and from his city, Jerusalem, where he has lived since he was 12. It was the notorious foot-dragging of the Interior Ministry that deprived al-Kharouf from receiving resident status in Israel when he arrived in the country with his father, a native of Jerusalem.

With hands tied behind her back, Lustigman cited prior court precedents and common sense on her client’s behalf, also pointing out the strange errors made by the Interior Ministry (such as its claim that al-Kharouf was a Jordanian citizen, and his arrest as an illegal alien, even though he already appealed against the rejection of his family unification request). The Jordanian consul had informed Lustigman that since the arrest of the young photographer, no Israeli official had contacted the Jordanian government to arrange for his expulsion. Such a request would not have been accepted in any event by the Hashemite kingdom, since he is not a Jordanian citizen, the consul had said.

In the hallway, a reporter for a Jordanian television station recounted that in a speech, Jordan’s King Abdullah had said that Jordan opposes the expulsion of Palestinian Jerusalemites from their city. The king was referring to al-Kharouf’s case, the reporter surmised.

After an hour and a half, when the anonymous Shin Bet representative evaporated and al-Kharouf’s family and friends returned to Courtroom 301, the judge informed Lustigman and her client’s family that the intelligence material which the Shin Bet had presented included a variety of details covering the past five or six years and supported the claim that al-Kharouf has been involved in support for terrorist organizations, including Hamas. Strangely, the Interior Ministry had previously accused al-Kharouf of association only with Hamas, but now, for some reason, other groups were added to the allegations.

“I believe Mustafa that it apparently involves meetings and conversations with various people in the context of his work as a photographer,” Lustigman said. “He had not been summoned for interrogation over these suspicions. He had not been arrested or tried. How had they permitted him for years to go around freely if he had posed such a danger to the public?”

But when the Shin Bet has the first and last word, can it still be hoped that the logic and the law cited by Lustigman will overcome the blindfold and the handcuffs?