Human Rights: UN experts condemn Israel’s arbitrary detention and conviction of Palestinian aid worker

Geneva, 18 June, 2022.- UN human rights experts* today denounced Israel for abusing counter-terrorism laws to target and silence human rights defenders, after an Israeli court found Gaza aid worker, Mohammed el-Halabi, guilty of financing terrorism.

The conviction of the former programme director of World Vision’s Gaza office was a clear violation of Israel’s obligation to respect the right to a fair trial and due process, as well as its obligation as an Occupying Power under international humanitarian law, the experts said.

“Mr. el-Halabi’s trial demonstrated a serious disregard for fair trial guarantees, including the extensive use of secret evidence against him, restricted communication with his lawyer, inadequate time and obstacles posed for the preparation of his defence and the failure to try him without undue delay,” they said.

“Convicting a humanitarian aid worker in serious violation of the right to a fair trial and on baseless charges of ‘terrorism’ is further evidence of Israel’s egregious misuse of counter-terrorism measures to suppress voices of human rights defenders.”

On 15 June 2022, Israel’s Beersheba District Court convicted Mr. el-Halabi on 13 charges of terrorism, including membership of a terrorist organisation and diverting humanitarian funds to finance terrorist activities.

Mr. el-Halabi was arrested in 2016 by Israel’s Shin Bet security service after being accused of diverting millions of dollars in humanitarian funds to armed groups in Gaza. He was detained on the charges for six years.

“During his detention, he was reportedly subject to ill-treatment, solitary confinement, duress and coercion to provide a confession, all of which may amount to torture,” the experts said. “Mr. el-Halabi has consistently maintained his innocence. An independent audit carried out on World Vision found no evidence of diversion of funds,” they said.

According to the experts, Mr. el-Halabi was subject to extreme pressure to confess and accept a plea bargain during his prolonged detention. “A confession extracted from Mr. el-Halabi under the threat of physical violence flagrantly deviates from international human rights standards and should have been inadmissible as evidence,” the UN experts said.

Mr. el-Halabi is only one of 4,700 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. His case appears emblematic of a trend in which human rights defenders and humanitarian workers are detained by Israeli authorities for prolonged periods and subjected to different forms of pressure to admit guilt in the absence of compelling evidence, as an attempt to curtail their human rights and humanitarian work. Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern over “the widespread practice of arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinians, including journalists, human rights defenders and children” in Israel.

“This practice of arbitrary arrest and detention is part and parcel of the protracted military occupation, which subjugates Palestinians to oppression and strips them of any sense of human rights and dignity,” said the experts.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has also stated that under certain circumstances, widespread or systematic imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of international law may constitute crimes against humanity.

“These cases of arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinians in Israel, including that of Mr. el-Halabi, warrant a prompt, independent, impartial, effective, thorough and transparent investigation,” the UN experts said. “We call for Mr. el-Halabi’s conviction to be promptly, independently, impartially and thoroughly reviewed on appeal through proceedings that respect and protect his fair trial guarantees. We also call for his immediate release on bail, pending appeal.”

The experts have previously raised concerns with the Government of Israel regarding Mr. el-Halabi’s case. The Israel authorities have not responded.

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