Free the Negev Demonstrators

The practice of arresting protesters violates their right to freedom and their right to freedom of expression.

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In recent years, the practice of arresting demonstrators has become more common. This violates human rights twice over – both the right to freedom and the right to freedom of expression. Every arrest, even if it’s just overnight, deprives a person of his freedom and must therefore be a last resort. And it’s even worse when the people being arrested are demonstrators, since this unacceptably deters them from exercising their right to demonstrate in the future.

As far back as the 1980s, then-Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak ruled that the freedom to demonstrate is one of Israel’s fundamental human rights. Yet the assault on this right keeps growing in various forms: harassment of demonstrators, the automatic dispersal of demonstrations, false arrests, violence against demonstrators, indictments of people who hold protest vigils for “illegal gatherings,” photographing demonstrators and even demanding that the media provide their photographs of the demonstrators.

The use of arrests and excessive force against protesters has become common practice in many social struggles, like the demonstrations in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the protests against the separation barrier and the social-justice protests. In several cases in the past, judges have rebuked the police for bringing arrested demonstrators to court for a remand hearing instead of releasing them as soon as they reached the police station. But unfortunately the courts don’t always act this way.

During recent demonstrations against the Prawer Law’s plan for resettling the Negev Bedouin, 23 people were arrested. A few who complained of police brutality were released. But 13 people, including five minors, are still in jail almost 10 days later.

One, whose detention was extended for another six days on Thursday by the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court, will end up being jailed for at least two weeks just because he took part in a demonstration. Nor does the police’s claim that the detainees resisted arrest justify detention for such a long period, since we aren’t talking about dangerous criminals.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to freedom means any law that infringes on human freedom must be interpreted narrowly, since this right can be infringed only to the least extent necessary. Thus even when demonstrators are arrested, there is no justification for holding them in jail longer than absolutely necessary.

When a court refuses to free detainees under such circumstances, it helps the state ride roughshod over liberty and freedom of expression. The legal system must not send the message the government is suppressing legitimate opposition to a program like the Prawer Plan, because this would constitute a threat to democracy. The judges would do better to refuse to extend the detentions of demonstrators who protest government policy.

Hura rally against Bedouin resettlement.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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