In Israel, Punishing in Order to Silence

The State Prosecution requested to jail an activist for his Facebook posts. Now, every citizen will know the price of criticizing the establishment

Lawyer and activist Barak Cohen.
Tomer Appelbaum

Last week the State Prosecution proved it has been enlisted in the regime’s battle against those who criticize the government, and to this end it is prepared to restrict the free expression of ordinary citizens.

Last Wednesday the prosecution asked the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court to sentence activist and lawyer Barak Cohen, leader of the anti-banking group Ba’im Labanka’im, to a year in prison and a fine after he was convicted in June of insulting a public servant and obstructing a policeman in the course of his duty.

According to the prosecution, Cohen must serve a year in prison because the intelligence coordinator at Jerusalem’s Moriah police station, Alon Hamdani, was offended by comments Cohen posted on Facebook, particularly a video in June 2014, in which Cohen sang a song comparing him to “a green-eyed snake” that “roams the streets, collecting and harassing, swallowing people up,” who “hits the children without mercy.” Prosecutors say that it wasn’t just a song, but a series of posts condemning Hamdani that appeared over the course of a year.

Cohen argued that the song and the posts were a response to Hamdani’s inappropriate approach and invalid methods used against activists, but his claims were rejected by Judge Dana Amir, who ruled that posts constituted a “campaign of insults.”

But for the prosecution it wasn’t enough that Cohen was convicted. It wants to send a message to anyone who would dare criticize the government or the establishment, by demanding a heavy sentence be imposed on Cohen.

Indeed, the prosecutor treated Cohen like a particularly dangerous criminal, saying that he “drew a target on Hamdani’s body, and metaphorically ‘fired’ with intent to harm him.” The lawyer asked the court to crack down on Cohen and sentence him to the sternest possible punishment because “we know that the accused is very far from returning to the straight and narrow,” and because “he lacks motivation to change his behavior.”

Cohen is known to the public as a political activist and sharp critic with a blunt style of protesting, one who posts videos in which he insults the targets of his criticism. He has called Culture Minister Miri Regev a “rag” and “undemocratic garbage,” and Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay “a fascist pig.”

Nevertheless, the prosecution request to sentence him to a year in prison smacks of “confirming the kill.” Now every citizen will know the price of criticizing the establishment.

It would behoove the court to impose a symbolic punishment on Cohen, one that will clearly convey that although the offense of insulting a public servant is indeed on the books, the prosecution shouldn’t exploit it in a draconian fashion. Law enforcement policy must give proper space to free political expression in the public sphere.