Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Israeli detention center faces legal challenge after ‘unimaginable abuses’


JERUSALEM — Israel is transferring hundreds of Gazan inmates out of Sde Teiman, a shadowy military-run detention center in Israel’s southern desert that former prisoners and whistleblowers have alleged was a site of grave human rights abuses.

Israeli authorities announced that they had begun transferring detainees to other facilities in response to a hearing held by the country’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, the first to challenge the legality of Sde Teiman. It was the latest move by rights groups to shed light on what they say is a legal black hole created after Oct. 7, allowing prisoners from Gaza to disappear into military custody.

Israel has denied the abuse allegations and refuses to disclose the names, whereabouts and allegations against the several thousand Gazans it says are being held on its territory.

In the hearing Wednesday, the Tel Aviv-based Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and four other rights groups petitioned Israel’s highest court to close the detention center, arguing that “egregious violations at Sde Teiman make depriving these people of liberty blatantly unconstitutional.”

Former Gazan detainees told The Washington Post in January that they were beaten, denied medical care and made to kneel handcuffed and blindfolded for days on end at secret Israeli detention sites. Last month, a CNN investigation into Sde Teiman found the camp was divided into two parts: enclosed areas housing groups of shackled detainees — some of whom were handcuffed so tightly they had to have body parts surgically removed — and a field hospital, where patients in blindfolds and diapers were strapped to beds and force-fed through straws.

“Mounting testimonies have exposed the unimaginable abuses at Sde Teiman — surgeries without anesthesia, prolonged restraint in agonizing positions leading to amputation, blindfolding for days even during medical treatment and toilet use, detainees forced into diapers, severe beatings and torture,” ACRI said in its statement to the court.

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Israeli army radio reported Monday that the military police had opened criminal investigations into the deaths of 48 Palestinians, most of whom died in detention or en route to a facility.

The Israeli military established Sde Teiman in the aftermath of the Hamas-led attacks last year to hold Gazan detainees under a form of administrative detention, or incarceration without trial, using the country’s far-reaching Unlawful Combatants Law. Detainees are not classified as prisoners of war.

Israeli state attorneys said Wednesday that Sde Teiman was intended “as a reception, investigation and preliminary sorting facility for holding detainees for a short duration only” before transferring them to other sites and would be returned to its “original purpose.”

State attorney Aner Helman told the court that some 700 Palestinians had already been relocated to the Ofer military facility in the occupied West Bank and 500 more would be moved in the coming weeks. The state would update the court in three days about the status of an additional 200 detainees remaining at Sde Teiman, Helman said.

“It looks like they understand that what they did until now cannot continue,” ACRI lawyer Roni Pelli said.

But she was concerned by the state’s suggestion that Sde Teiman might be used as a temporary holding site.

“If the detention center does not fit the conditions by international humanitarian law and Israeli law,” Pelli said, “it cannot be used for even holding one person for one day.”

The government response did not address any of the abuse allegations, saying a committee would be established to investigate conditions at Israeli detention centers.

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, state attorneys repeatedly delayed submitting their reply to the court, Pelli said, and in “a very rare move” they provided a brief response past deadline and shortly before the hearing.

“It wasn’t a normal situation,” she said. “Because, really, they didn’t respond to any of our arguments.”

The White House last month called reports of conditions at Sde Teiman “deeply concerning” and “very troubling.”

Some 1,500 gunmen were detained on Oct. 7 and in the days that followed, according to Israeli authorities. Thousands of other Palestinians, both combatants and civilians, have been picked up in Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces and transferred to Israel.

Last month, in response to another legal challenge, Israeli authorities said about 4,000 Gazans had been detained and about 1,500 released for lack of evidence — the first public accounting of the previously secret detentions.

Gazans are held in three main Israeli detention sites — Sde Teiman, Anatot and Ofer prison — in addition to makeshift sites run by the Israeli security services and other Israeli prison facilities, said Tal Steiner, the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI).

IDF’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said last week that the military was looking into allegations of mistreatment and general conditions at the three main detention sites. A committee is due to propose recommendations to Halevi this month.

In late May, Israel’s Supreme Court heard initial arguments in a petition filed by PCATI and other Israeli rights groups challenging use of the Unlawful Combatants Law, or UCL. Under wartime amendments to the UCL, detainees can be held for months before a judge reviews their case or they are given access to a lawyer.

“The law, permitting the incommunicado detention of Gazans civilians in allegedly appalling conditions, is unconstitutional, disproportionate to Israeli security needs and violates fundamental human rights protected by international law,” PCATI said in a statement.

Among those still detained, according to state attorneys, more than 2,000 people were being held as unlawful combatants — compared with just 30 fighters held in the same category during the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza war.

The IDF told The Post in January that the UCL removes someone “from the cycle of hostilities” and “grants several procedural safeguards and basic rights.”

In response to the petition challenging the UCL, state attorneys said detainees held for more than 75 days had been seen by a judge “but they have not been represented by lawyers at the hearings, and the court records have not been made public,” according to Steiner.

Lawyers for detainees facing criminal charges — expected to include militants who took part in the Oct. 7 attacks — have asked that their identities be concealed because they “fear persecution,” she said.

In early May, Israel-based rights group HaMoked petitioned the government to locate a Palestinian medical worker detained by Israeli forces during a February raid on Nasser Hospital in southern Gaza.

Israeli government lawyers responded that they had no obligation to provide the information because Gaza is considered “enemy territory.”



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