Gaza aid worker must be given fair trial or released, say UN experts

By agency reporter
November 15, 2020

Israel must release a former Gaza aid worker who has been in prison for more than four years without a verdict, or immediately grant him a fair trial, UN human rights experts said on 12 November 2020.

Mohammed el-Halabi, the former Gaza director of the World Vision charity, was arrested by Israeli security forces in June 2016 on allegations that he diverted millions of dollars in development funds to armed groups in Gaza, charges he denies, and which audits have not substantiated.

“Mr el-Halabi’s arrest, interrogation and trial is not worthy of a democratic state,” the experts said. “Israeli authorities must grant him the full rights of a fair trial, or else release him unconditionally.

“What is happening to Mr el-Halabi bears no relation to the trial standards we expect from democracies, and is part of a pattern where Israel uses secret evidence to indefinitely detain hundreds of Palestinians”, they said.

Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, questioned el-Halabi for 50 days after his arrest without allowing him access to a lawyer. He says he was tortured, deprived of sleep and hung from a ceiling during this time. His lawyer says the Israeli prosecutor repeatedly offered him a plea deal, but he rejected it and maintained his innocence.

“It’s particularly disturbing that the prosecution is relying upon confessions allegedly obtained by force while he was denied access to a lawyer, and on testimony from undercover informers”, the experts said.

Since his arrest and imprisonment, el-Halabi has attended more than 140 court hearings, all behind closed doors. His lawyer has been prevented from reviewing Israeli prosecution evidence, or was given only limited access with secrecy restrictions. “These fundamentally unfair practices stain the justice system of any state”, the experts said. “We demand that Israel adhere to the requirements of the international rule of law.”

The international rule of law requires that an individual who is arrested must only be detained if there are reasonable suspicions that she or he has committed a recognised crime, and the charges and the evidence must be clearly laid out so defendants know what they have to answer. Comprehensive audits of the financial records by World Vision and by the Australian government, which donated the money, failed to turn up any misappropriation of funds or other wrongdoing.

Under the international rule of law, a defendant is entitled to swift access to a lawyer and to timely criminal proceedings that are fair and impartial. Any defendant must be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty, and is entitled to cross-examine witnesses and to present her or his own witnesses.

“Even in security trials, these fundamental rights must be respected”, the experts said. “Unfortunately, Mr el-Halabi has been put in the position where he is required to refute allegations against him without knowing the details or who the accusers are. Keeping him in the dark like this shifts the burden of proof to the defendant, and is a fundamental violation of the right to a fair trial.”

The experts in this case are: Mr Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967; Ms Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and Mr Diego García-Sayán, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

* Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


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