In Jail, Everyone Called Me 'Babushka'

"I'll be 70 in another month. I've already been in jail for a year and a half. I'm sick. I have headaches and dizzy spells. I've already fallen here twice. They took me to the doctor on a stretcher. My ribs were injured, on the right side. I have pains in my heart. I go to the prison doctor two or three times a week, and the only reason I don't go more often is that I don't want to bother him. I'm embarrassed. I wake up sick every day. My hands tremble and my legs ache. If you release me, I'll live at my son's house, in Haifa. I have five grandchildren who are waiting for their grandmother - I want to get out. I'm afraid to die in jail."

With these words, Fanya Elkanov beseeched Judge Sharon Bavli-Lary, on February 19, at a second hearing in Custodial Court for Illegal Residents, in Ward 10 of Ma'asiyahu Prison.

Since Elkanov immigrated to Israel from Georgia, in 1993, the matter of her deportation has been caught up in an exhausting judicial cycle. First the Custodial Court addressed her case, then the District Court, then the High Court, where Justice Ayala Procaccia directed the return of the matter to Custodial Court.

"Given the circumstances, the deteriorating medical condition of the detained, her advanced age, and particularly, the fact that the detained does not endanger the public," wrote Justice Bavli-Lary in her ruling, "I believe it would not be proportionately just to continue to hold her in custody." Further time in custody, she added, "represents a real threat to her health."

Since her release from prison, Elkanov has lived in the home of her eldest son, Avshalom, 39, in Haifa's impoverished Sha'ar Ha'aliya neighborhood. In broken Hebrew and Russian, Elkanov attempts to tell the heart-wrenching story of her life. After her attempt to shift from one language to another ends in despair, Elkanov clings to the richest language of all, silence. Her son is enlisted to complete her story.

"I became a widow at age 41," Elkanov says. "I raised three children alone. My mother was Jewish and I still light candles and keep kosher, as she did. In 1993, there was a war in Georgia, and we felt that it was dangerous to stay there. I immigrated to Israel with Avshalom, his wife, and my son Zoreb. My daughter, who was married, escaped to Russia with her husband." When the Elkanov family arrived in Israel, they received citizenship.

"In 1998, we wanted to bring my sister to Israel," Avshalom continues. "We filed a request at the Interior Ministry, and they looked at the documents. They decided that our immigration permits were forged and revoked the family's citizenship.

"I don't want to cry or complain but it was a very difficult period. I had little children that I could not take to our health maintenance organization. I couldn't work, and we were left without basic social benefits. The absurd thing was that, when we became Israeli citizens, the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia got its independence, and we, because we left before that, were not considered Georgian citizens. We didn't understand where the State [of Israel] wanted us to go."

The Elkanovs were declared illegal residents. In 2004, Avshalom was held in a Nazareth detention center for a month and a half, while facing deportation. His wife, Laura, contacted the Interior Ministry, and then-minister Avraham Poraz agreed to grant her, her husband, and their five children permanent residence, on humanitarian grounds. Fanya and her younger son, Zoreb, now 36, both of whom remained without citizenship, filed a request to establish residence status on May, 11, 2005. On September 26 of that year, they returned to their home to find a member of the immigration police waiting at the entrance to their building. Fanya was taken to a Haifa police station, and from there to the detention center for illegal residents in Hadera. "The doctor at the detention center, an elderly man, couldn't look me in the eye," she says. "He told me, 'I've seen everything, but an old woman jailed because of a deportation order - that I have never seen.'"

From there, Elkanov was transferred to Ma'asiyahu Prison, and her son was transferred to Nitzan Prison. Zoreb had served three previous sentences for breaking and entering. "Zoreb ruined it for us," Avshalom says sadly. "He couldn't work, make a living - he had nothing to eat. He deteriorated, but after the last prison term, he straightened himself out. He started to grow up, and realized that this was no way to live his life.

"A criminal in prison gets a sentence and he knows how long he has to serve, but no one knows when someone facing deportation is going to be released. My mother was in jail for a year and a half. Judge after judge saw her and failed to show mercy and set her free. Only now, after her health got bad, they pitied her."

Elkanov's health deteriorated in prison. "I was very worried and restless and nervous," she says. "I was constantly dizzy, had headaches, backaches, and nervousness. I cried constantly. Everyone was good to me - the police, the wardens, the other prisoners. I was the oldest woman in jail and everyone called me 'Babushka' and 'Babu,' and they did everything they could to keep me from crying. But I'm not used to being in jail. I took it very hard. There was noise, young girls talking loudly at night, and I was alone. A year and a half in jail.

"I am always crying. I am 70. Where will I go? I have been in Israel for 14 years. What do I have in Georgia? I have no home there, no family, no citizenship. My son and grandchildren are in Israel. Where will I go from the Georgian airport?"

Elkanov says she attempted suicide twice in jail. Avshalom, who is hearing about this for the first time, becomes silent as tears well up in his eyes. "I didn't believe they would hold her in jail for a year and a half," he finally says. "An old woman, sick - I don't understand why they imprisoned her for so long, when the state knew she had nowhere to return to. The state contacted the Georgian consul, who confirmed she does not have Georgian citizenship. After prolonged deliberation, he offered her a three-month tourist visa. What do they expect of her - at age 70, she's going to travel to Georgia on a tourist visa and marry to become a citizen?"

Life sentence

After a year and a half in prison, Elkanov has an uncertain future. "The judge said she would file a request that the Interior Ministry consider her case no later than a month after the day of her release," Avshalom reads from the ruling, "and if the interior minister decides to deport her, she has to leave the country within two months. So, why did she sit in jail for a year and a half? And why was she released? She still has no status, no identity card, no citizenship. I have a feeling that it isn't over yet."

"The state maintains that Fanya's documents and her son's are forged," says the family's attorney, Roman Brik. "The sentence for obtaining false entry permits is one year in prison. In other words, Fanya and her son were in jail longer than if they had been tried in court for a criminal offense. The State of Israel, which has signed an international convention to reduce the numbers of those who lack citizenship but has still not ratified it, is acting in opposition to its commitments.

"The process of revoking citizenship is not implemented by the court but by a clerk appointed by the head of the Population Administration," Brik continues. "That is scandalous. In the case of Fanya and her son, citizenship was revoked without their being given an opportunity to present evidence or expert testimony regarding the validity of their documents. The state also failed to examine the existence of alternate citizenship, and now Georgia does not consider them citizens. Israel is attempting to force them to leave the country, and if they refuse, they get a 'life sentence.'"

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad responds, "Elkanov came to Israel in 1993 with her sons, and they were granted the status of new immigrants based on the fraudulent documents they presented. Their status was revoked following an examination by the highest echelon of authorized officials in the state. One of her sons, who arrived with his wife and his daughter on the basis of those documents, was granted status, on humanitarian grounds, three years ago. Elkanov and her other son, who was imprisoned for criminal offenses, illegally remained residents of Israel despite the fact that their illicitly acquired status was revoked. "About a year and a half ago, Elkanov was detained on grounds of illegal residence, and no national body saw fit to release her until arrangements for her to leave Israel were complete. The Custodial Court for Illegal Residents recently ruled that they should be released for one month, on condition that during that period, the court would file a request to the interior minister to resolve their status. In the event that such a request is filed, it will be considered, as required."

The Justice Ministry comments: "Fanya and Zoreb Elkanov received immigrant identity cards based on the documents they presented. In 1998, their citizenship was revoked, after the Interior Ministry ascertained that the documents were fraudulent. Since their citizenship was revoked, they continued to illegally reside in Israel for seven years. In 2005, they were caught and placed in custody. Since then, they have refused to cooperate with the state by providing appropriate documents and/or by displaying their willingness to obtain a laissez-passer to Georgia, their nation of origin, in order to resolve there the re-establishment of their Georgian citizenship. They even failed to adequately cooperate with Georgian representatives in order to clarify their status and their connection to that nation.

"In this case, clause 13-F(b) applies, which states that it is permissible to hold an individual in custody if his expulsion from Israel is prevented by his lack of complete cooperation, including cases requiring clarification of identity or resolution of expulsion proceedings from Israel. Beyond the letter of the law, and without the assistance of the petitioners, the state engaged in diplomatic contacts with representatives of the Georgian Republic, in an attempt to resolve the petitioners' issues, without their agreement. According to Georgian law, the petitioners are entitled to re-establish their Georgian citizenship. The Republic of Georgia also announced, and it was reported to the petitioners and to the court, that it is willing to grant them entry permits into Georgia, where they may file a request to re-establish their citizenship. The two also refused to cooperate in this process. Additional clarification by the Republic of Georgia indicates that Zoreb Elkanov is a Georgian citizen and that an additional step is required to complete the re-establishment of his citizenship. The aforementioned facts reveal that the keys to their release were in the hands of the petitioners throughout this period, but they refused to cooperate."