TIME Middle East

Why This Palestinian Clown is Being Jailed Without Trial

Palestinians clowns during a show of solidarity for their colleague, Mohammed Abu Sakha, who was jailed by Israel in December, in front of the Red Cross office in Gaza City, Feb. 8, 2016.
Majdi Fathi—NurPhoto/Sipa USA Palestinians clowns during a show of solidarity for their colleague, Mohammed Abu Sakha, who was jailed by Israel in December, in front of the Red Cross office in Gaza City, Feb. 8, 2016.

The detention of a Palestinian performer has highlighted Israel's policy of detention without trial

Mohammad Abu Sakha, a 24-year old Palestinian circus clown, juggler, and tightrope walker, was on his way to work at the Palestinian Circus School when he was arrested by Israeli troops.

According to Addameer, the legal aid organization representing Abu Sakha, he was crossing a military checkpoint in the West Bank when Israeli soldiers boarded his bus to check passengers’ identification cards. After checking Abu Sakha’s, the soldiers told him to step off the bus. They pointed their weapons at him, threatening to shoot him if he made a move.

Until his arrest on Dec. 14, Abu Sakha worked at the school as a performer, trainer, and coordinator of a program for children with mental disabilities. The program has been on hold ever since. Abu Sakha is being held in an Israeli prison, under a legal procedure known as administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold prisoners for an indefinite period of time without charges and without trial, based on secret information. Abu Sakha is one of several thousand Palestinians who have been detained in this way in the last ten years.

The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, claims Abu Sakha is “a threat to the security of the region,” and is being held without trial because the evidence against him is classified. The authorities accuse him of involvement with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist group that is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada and European Union.

Abu Sakha denies these claims, says Addameer advocacy officer Laith Abu Zeyad, who pointed out that neither Abu Sakha nor his lawyer are privy to the specific charges against him. Israeli circus artists have staged protests over his detention, and an online petition has garnered more than 12,000 signatures.

His supporters have posted this video online:

Abu Sakha’s case is an illustration of the Israeli government’s lavish use of administrative detention. While international law permits detention without trial under extremely limited, emergency circumstances, critics argue that Israel has exploited the measure, instituting it on a massive scale, and denying detainees due process.

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that receives monthly data from the Israeli Prison Service, Abu Sakha is one of 568 Palestinians currently being held under administrative detention. Over the last decade, Israel has imprisoned nearly 4,000 people under administrative detention. Just 35 of them have been Jewish. Among them are Jewish extremists accused of throwing a fire bomb into a Palestinian home in the West Bank in July 2015, killing ​three​ members of the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old baby.

In February, a Palestinian journalist, Mohammed al-Qiq was freed from six months of administrative detention after a 94-day hunger strike.

Israel is not the only state to hold detainees indefinitely without charge or trial. Amnesty International has documented the use and abuse of administrative detention in various countries, including Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Iraq. This is not a list that Israel, which prides itself on being a Jewish and Democratic state, wants to be a part of.

“For decades the Israeli authorities have used administrative detention to incarcerate thousands of Palestinians for prolonged periods, and nothing can justify this,” says Deborah Hyams of Amnesty International. “It is used to arbitrarily and unjustly detain peaceful activists, and as an alternative to prosecuting Palestinians suspected of committing offenses, denying them any prospects of a fair trial.”

The Israeli army says the procedure is “a last resort preventative measure used in cases in which the detainee presents a real and present security threat.”

According to Justice Ministry spokesman Noam Sharvit, administrative detention is used “only when the evidence in existence is clear, concrete and trustworthy but for reasons of confidentiality and protection of intelligence sources, cannot be presented as evidence in ordinary criminal proceedings.”

He added that administrative detainees are given a right to appeal, and their detention is reevaluated every six months.

According to government statistics, 75 percent of administrative detainees are held for longer than ​six​ months without trial, and 40 percent for more than a year. Just 5 percent of Palestinians held in administrative detention are indicted at the end of their detention. The vast majority are simply ​released.

An Israeli court will hear Abu Sakha’s appeal on March 21​. But according to human rights lawyers, the odds are against him and the hundreds of other detainees like him.

“Administrative detainees must be brought before a judge for a judicial review, but the vast majority of the information that the security services show against the detainee are shown only to the judge, behind closed doors, and neither the detainee nor his lawyer can review the information and rebut it,” says Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has defended hundreds of administrative detainees. “In most of the cases, the judge just approves the order and that’s it.”

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