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Lea Tsemel vs. Legal Rights

Haaretz Editorial
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From the documentary "Advocate."
From the documentary "Advocate."Credit: Adi Mozes
Haaretz Editorial

The decision not to renew Lea Tsemel’s term as chairwoman of the military courts committee of the Israel Bar Association’s Jerusalem chapter was a capitulation to political persecution. It was made at the request of three right-wing organizations: B’Tsalmo, Israel Sheli and the Choosing Life Forum, an organization of families that have lost family members to Palestinian terror that is supported by the extreme-right Im Tirtzu organization.

Tsemel’s term was not renewed because she frequently represents Palestinian terror suspects. A biographical documentary released last year, “Advocate,” brought Tsemel wider international recognition. It came in for criticism from the right, including by Culture Minister Miri Regev, who demanded that it be pulled from theaters on the grounds that it “glorifies terrorists.”

The decision to freeze Tsemel’s appointment is a direct continuation of the dangerous call to silence voices that don’t suit the political agenda of the people in power. The Israel Bar Association has over 100 committees on various legal topics whose sole purpose is to see to the organization’s interests. The chairman of the association’s Jerusalem chapter, Asher Axelrod, who ordered the freeze, explained that the Jerusalem district has no military prisons for soldiers.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56

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The Ofer prison is only used for security detainees, so the military courts committee in the district must be chaired by a lawyer who appears in the facility – that is, a defense attorney for its detainees. He added that the committee’s function begins and ends with guaranteeing that lawyers can enter the facility, that they have a room there with a computer and a fax machine, and that they are able to meet with their clients.

In the Israel of the so-called nation-state law, belief in one of the fundamental principles of criminal justice – the universal right to counsel – has evidently begun to crack. And in fact, this is what the Choosing Life Forum said: “Every lawyer representing terrorists should know that bereaved families will stand against anyone who seeks to work on behalf of base murderers. We’ll continue to try with all our might to interfere with her actions against Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers. This is a victory for common sense.”

But it wasn’t a victory for common sense; it was a victory for the warped message that suspected terrorists have no right to a legal defense. The expectation is apparently that lawyers should refuse to represent them, and anyone who does represent them isn’t a worthy candidate for any public position. Even though Axelrod admitted that there was nothing new about Tsemel’s appointment to the post, which she has held for the past eight and a half years, in the end he capitulated to pressure from right-wing organizations and members of bereaved families and froze it.

The pain of the bereaved families’ is understandable. But acquiescing to the demand born of this pain by undermining the right to a fair trial, a foundational principle of the justice system, is unacceptable. Axelrod must reverse himself and confirm Tsemel’s appointment.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.