GENEVA 12 MARCH 2011:
The First International Conference on the Rights of Palestinain Prisoners and Detainees.
By: Lauren Booth
After six decades, the illegal detention, torture and prison abuse of Palestinians by the Israeli regime, is being seriously addressed on the international stage. Just days after the UN heard testimonies from former Palestinian prisoners at a special meeting in Vienna, a comprehensive conference has taken place on the same issue, in Geneva.
The session was organised by an Oslo-based network for defending Palestinian prisoner rights, ‘UFree’ alongside the NGO ‘Droit Pour Tous’ (Right For All).
In his opening remarks the head of UFree, Mr. Mohammad Hamdan, asked why the mainstream media beyond the Middle East had remained mute, on the suffering of Palestinian men and women detained by the Israeli forces. The conditions in prisons and detention centres, he made asserted, in no way meets international minimum standards.
More than 80 delegates, including Palestinian wives and children of male prisoners, were then shown excerpts from a documentary ‘Imprisoned Flowers’. A film which focuses on specific cases of suffering, in Israeli detention centres and prisons.
One such case was Nilly Safadi. A young woman, who fell in love with a blind colleague. In 2003, 14 days after the wedding, Israeli occupation forces arrested her unseeing husband without explanation. For the next seven years she was not permitted to see him. Not even once.
On the 11th of November 2009, Nilly went to visit her sister in Ramallah. She was snatched by Israeli forces and taken to a detention centre near Jerusalem. Without any official charges being brought and without explanation, she was the subjected to 100 days of interrogation, undergoing physical and emotional torture.
The couple were tragically re united, for the first time, in an Israeli courtroom. There, they were forbidden from talking to one another. Unable to help herself, Nilly spoke to her husband. An emotional outburst which earnt her three days in solidarity confinement on return to the prison. On 5 December 2010 she was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment.
The story of Kefah was shown to the conference.
Kefah means ˜struggle’ in Arabic. From the West Bank, this mother has two children aged 16 and 17 year old. Children she calls ˜the flowers of her life’.
Kefah suffers from the rare condition Raynauds synrdrome. It has been gradually eroding her limbs for some years. This condition leads to eventual amputation. It is spreading through her body. Kefah,also suffers from asthma and reheumatoid arthritis.
The mother of two, was arrested some years ago. She was not charged with any crime by the arresting officers. However, she was tortured; hung up by her wrists in a cell, then placed in solitary confinement. To this day she has not appeared before a court.
Under pressure from rights groups Kefahâ€™s deteriorating health, meant she was eventually sent to a clinic in Israel from prison. Here against a series of legal appeals, her hands were cuffed at all times, causing her further injuries.
No one knows when she wil be released.
The most moving speech of the day, was given by the daughter of Ayman Kfisha; Saira
Saira was born not long after her father was imprisoned, by Israel. She is now fourteen. Her father has not been home since her birth.
She told delegates; ‘˜This night has been too long. I don’t see the end of it’. She expressed her solidarity with the prisoners and their families suffering like her own, saluting their strength.
To the Zionist regime, 1,000 days is nothing, but to a family missing a loved one, unable to carry on with their lives, or visit their relative, it is an painful emotional torture. Saira talked of her sadness.
“I feel sadness. How long must we suffer this? Until when will the mothers continue to cry for their detainees and the wives continue to worry for their husbands? How long will children be denied fathers? I appeal to the international conscience. Humanity should not have accepted this reality. To speak about detainees is to speak about a great wound in my heart. You can ask my mother how can she spend her hours. How can she meet the loneliness? Ask my grandmother- can she still cry for her son? She has cried too much.”
Saira gave delegates a clear view of what it is like for children visiting fathers held in detention by Israel. The security barriers, the inspections, the use of “every method” to break the womens dignity. The cruelty of even these rare visits is something that tens of thousands of Palestinian families have been familiar with. since 1967 almost three quarters of a million Palestinians have been subjected to Israeli detention, often without charge. Only 3 per cent of those incarcerated were convicted of acts of resistance.
Saira movingly described the agony of the women and children who after months, even years of waiting to see a loved one, after hours of humiliations to reach the prison entrance, that, (in an inexplicably callous manner) an Israeli soldier will often tear up the wives precious permission slip. Throwing it onto the ground, reports this child, ‘ because they are in a bad mood’.
‘In this way they manage even to remove the pleasure of seeing a father again. Replacing even this moment of hope, with anxiety and fear’.
What is daily life like for Palestinians in Israeli ‘security’ prisons? The conference heard Saira recount her father Ayman’s experience in some detail. Newspapers are banned for the father as they are other detainees in Beer Sheva prison. Interestingly, you will find it hard to get any information on these facilities on the internet. Those held in Beer Sheva, are routinely denied pens and rulers. Listening to Al Jazeera has been banned. Books are banned for many. Access to external news was briefly given (then removed again) after several prisoners went on hunger strike.
Saira, went on to describe her father’s experience of solitary confinement. These cells are just 1m by 1m and are Medieval in other ways. No light enters them. Some prisoners are reported to have spent 25 years in these conditions.
Here is a report into the most recent attack on prisoners in Beer Sheva ;
As the young girl spoke, some Palestinian men in the hall – former prisoners – cried. No doubt reliving their own experiences. One man sobbed, his chest heaving.
The next speaker to address this ground-breaking conference was Mrs Nurhayaty. She is leader of the co ordinating committe of women parliamentarians of IRP and an Indonesian parliamentarian. Mrs Nurhayaty spoke of the need for an international ‘conscience’ and to applause, told delegates:
‘There will be no world peace without peace in Palestine’.
Mr Ueli Leuenberger, Leader of Green Party, expressed sympathy for all those suffering the ‘failure of the international community in giving them their land and their freedom’.
He called on Switzerland to end trading arms to Israel and to end all and any military co operation with the regime. His colleagues in he Green Party intend to place before the Swiss parliament a call for an end to the trade in settlement produce in Switzerland.
He spoke of the a changing world, in which, in light of the uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, there are renewed hopes for solidarity, justice and freedom. Beginning, he emphasized, with the liberation of all Palestinian ‘political prisoners’.
Jeremy Corbyn UK MP and long term activist for Palestinian rights, came up with the first solid recommendation of the day. One that can be easily implemented by human rights groups, NGO’s and even individuals worldwide.
‘Geneva, the home of so many hopes. And the reality of so many disappointments, in relation to Palestinian rights’ he began.
Then he listed the abuses of human rights Israel practices on the Palestinian civilians, including children and women, it kidnaps from the West Bank and Gaza, week in, week out;
‘Administrative detention. Solitary confinement. Lack of medical support. No visitors associations. Perhaps worst of all, the torture of not knowing. Nothing is worse than a state that takes people from the street, then forces them into wasting their lives (in a cell) not knowing when they will be free. Each prisoner has their families put in prison too. Because, their hopes and their dreams are all put on hold as well.
Corbyn proposes that the files of individual prisoners now be sent to solidarity groups internationally so that the faces, ages and names of these prisoners can be more widely known and one to one campaigns for their release. And compensation for their suffering. Can begin in earnest. It is of the upmost importance to children, to family members, like Saira, to the Palestinian detainees themselves, that Corbyn’s call is heard and acted upon.
Mr Husam Kader, himself a former detainee in an Israeli ‘security prison’ is also a member of the Palestinian legislative council.
He told the conference that there are legal teams globally, ready, today to use ‘all possible means to extablish justice in Palestine beginning with violations against the prisoners’. Mr Kader, expressed confidence in the abilty of these lawyers to act as soon as the prisoners files on these cases, arrive at their offices.
The use of detention without any given cause, particularly in the case of aged persons, women and children are abuses that fall under the remit of the international court. He calls for Arab and European lawyers to deal in an organized way, in co operation, so that prisoners and that justice, be served.
The vehicle firm Volvo was indicted for it’s involvement in Israeli crimes regarding the illegal transportation of Palestinians from their home towns and villages to prisons and detention centres in Israel. Volvo has created a specialized bus for the sole purpose of transporting Palestinian detainees, from their land – to Israel. Volvo must now be make the top twenty in the list of firms to be targeted by the BDS campaign.
Leader of the policy committee of the Swiss Socialist party, Mr Carlo Summaruga, made an impassioned call on the citizens of the world to take a reminder of our duties to one another from the Arab and North African uprisings. Our duty – to one another.
‘We, the Swiss people,’ he said ‘demand the immediate release of the Palestinian prisoners. An end to all econmic co operation and miliatary co operation with Israel. And that the international community banish Israel from all future meetings, until they meet their (human rights) obligations’.
The gently charismatic, former Guantanemo prisoner, Sami al-Haj addressed the conference. I first interviewed Sami just after his release from Guantanemo in 2008. He was frail and had just met his son, a boy who had not seen his father, for six years. Here is a man of dignity and bravery, whose mission now in life is to see the release of those men and women detained by corrupt systems and governments, where ever they are. He told me in 2008, he would never leave his ‘brothers’ behind without a voice and of his intense emotional sensitivity to the suffering of all prisoners in dire conditions. His presence at this, ground breaking conference, again shows his commitment to that cause.
Mr Al Haj began by offering the conference the Islamic greetings of peace. Then began
‘I feel now… I can feel the pains of the detainees and the pains of their families.. their wives their children.’ He pointed at the mass media’s silence on the denial of basic rights to Palestinians and detainees.
He called upon the secretary general of the UN, ‘and all international societies who could intervene’ to ensure that father’s, like Sair’s father (the young girl who spoke earlier) to return home.’ He went on to tell of a man he had met whilst in Guantanemo, like Saira’s father a Palestinian called Ayman.
‘ Ayman the Palestininian, in Saudi Arabi, kidnapped by the Americans. He is still detained (in Guantanemo) after seven years. Yet four years ago he was proven innocent. Why was he not released? Because the US authorities say he has nowhere to go!’
He ended with a crie to coeur that touched all our hearts.
‘They will come home Saira. Your father Ayman and Ayman in Guantanemo. The winds of change have come, starting in Tunisia and spreading. Your father will be released and your father will take you to school!’
The hi light of the conference for many was the appearance and speech given by Sheikh Raid Salah. The humble, emotionally strong, Sheikh, has spent more of his time in Israeli ‘security prisons’ in the past decade, than he has with his family in the north of historic Palestine (Israel). A poet, scolar and father of eight, he is also the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
On a personal note, he is also one of the reasons that I found Islam. But that’s another story. His ‘crimes’ according to the Israeli regime include; raising funds for ‘terror’ of which he was eventually fully acquitted. He is outspoken in his support for the rights of Palestinians under occupation to mount a physical resistance (as outlined under international law) against the occupying force and power.
He addressed the conference; ‘So long as there is an occupation then it is expected that Palestinians, resist the occupation As long as the occupation imposes this bloody violence on the Palestinian people, it is to be expected that some elements of the occupation will be killed .
Why do I speak like this? Because the claim by the israeli occupation regime, is that freedom fighters have blood on their hands. This is wrong. It is the Israeli occupation, which is the terrorist. We have to say the truth when we speak about pure human justice. Then we should not make it easy for the authorities. If they are angry – let them be…Therefore I have to say this; I have to state what I believe. I am ready to pay the price. It must be said that we are going to win the freedom of the prisoners and we are not afraid of prisons! We are seeking victory for justice and humanity. I say without any hesitation..if the choice is relinquhsing freedom and the Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Then I tell them (Israeli occupation regime), we will go to prison, as we will not give up our rights! There is a state of war between this resistance. And this occupation. This means that the Palestinian prisoner (found guilty of armed struggle) in prison, is a war prisoner. And must be treated as such in keeping with all treaties and conventions.”
It is Israel’s responsibility, as an occupying Power, to comply fully with its legal obligations, including the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The United Nations, opposes measures of forcible transfer .