16 Dec 2010

Abdallah Abu Rahmah at the Ofer Military Court during his trial. Picture credit: Oren Ziv
Abdallah Abu Rahmah at the Ofer Military Court during his trial.
Picture credit: Oren Ziv

US State Department Silent on Bil’in’s Abdallah Abu Rahmah

US State Department spokesman continues to avoid giving a clear US position on the case of imprisoned non-violent leader Abdallah Abu Rahmah. Asked three times on different occasions by Associated Press reporters, spokesman PJ Crowley failed to show clear US support of Abdallah Abu Rahmah.

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Amid a flurry of European diplomatic attention over the imprisonment of  Bil’in’s Abdallah Abu Rahmah, the United States has stayed strangely silent on the issue. Abu Rahmah, a non-violent leader from the West Bank village of Bil’in, has been in an Israeli military jail for over one year stemming from a charge of incitement and illegal protest levied against him after he was arrested in a night raid on his house on December 10th, 2010. After serving his sentence in full, the Israeli military prosecution demanded that he stay in jail while they file an appeal asking for a harsher sentence in order to ‘make an example’ of him.

On Friday, 10 December, AP reporter Matt Lee directly addressed Abdallah Abu Rahmah's case during a US State Department briefing. US State department spokesman PJ Crowley responded that he was unable to provide a comment on the trial. When Matt Lee pushed, arguing that the EU and other foreign dignitaries had labeled Abu Rahmah a human rights defender, Crowley responded that he will “[find] out what we know.”

At his appeal hearing at the Ofer military court of appeals on 6 December 2010, a dozen European diplomats from France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, and Malta were on hand to observe the trial. Sir Vincent Fean gave a short statement to the press, noting his support of EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton's statement labeling Abu Rahmah as a human rights defender. He also pointed out that  last month Abu Rahmah had already finished serving his sentence. Last month, British Foreign Minister, William Hague, met with leading Palestinian grassroots organizers in an unprecedented show of support in the face of ongoing Israeli repression.

The current US administration has made repeated statements on the need to support civil society activists, such as the one made by Secretary of State Clinton in July, 2010 the Krakow Community of Democracies meeting, in which she saluted “civil society activists around the world who have recently been harassed, censored, cut off from funding, arrested, prosecuted, even killed.” Clinton explained that when we defend civil society activists “we are defending an idea that has been and will remain essential to the success of every democracy.” She called for action to “protect civil society,” “to do more to defend the freedom of association,” and to “coordinate our diplomatic pressure” “to address situations where freedom of association comes under attack.”

Despite such statements, absent from the diplomatic core were representatives of the United States. In fact, the United States has not yet made any public statements on Abdallah’s imprisonment.

Yesterday, 15 December 2010, the issue of Abu Rahmah was followed up by the AP. Crowley answered that the case is ‘watched closely’ by US representatives in Israel. Far from releasing a statement on Abdallah Abu Rahmah, Crownly confirmed the silent position on Palestinian non-violence that the United States has maintained in recent months.
Video links of the relevant State Department briefings can be found here (10.12.2010, minute 13:08), here (13.12.2010, minute 17:08), here (14.12.2010, minute 21:33) and here (15.12.2010, minute 22:20).

Background
Abu Rahmah, the coordinator of the Bil'in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was arrested last year by soldiers who raided his home in the middle of the night and was subsequently indicted before an Israeli military court on unsubstantiated charges that included stone-throwing and arms possession. Abu Rahmah was cleared of both the stone-throwing and arms possession charges, but convicted of organizing illegal demonstrations and incitement.

An exemplary case of the use of the Israeli military legal system in the West Bank for the purpose of silencing legitimate political dissent, Abu Rahmah's conviction was subject to harsh international criticism. The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, expressed her deep concern "that the possible imprisonment of Mr Abu Rahmah is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest[...]", after EU diplomats attended all hearings in Abu Rahmah's case. Ashton's statement was followed by one from the Spanish Parliament.

Renowned South African human rights activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called on Israel to overturn Abu Rahmah's conviction on behalf of the Elders, a group of international public figures noted as elder statesmen, peace activists, and human rights advocates, brought together by Nelson Mandela. Members of the Elders, including Tutu, have met with Abu Rahmah on a visit to Bil'in prior to his arrest.

International human rights organization Amnesty International condemned Abu Rahmah's conviction as an assault on the right to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch denounced the conviction, pronouncing the whole process "an unfair trial". Israeli organizations also distributed statements against the conviction – including a statement by B’Tselem which raises the issue of questionable testimonies by minors used to convict Abu Rahmah, and The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) which highlights the inability to organize legal demonstrations for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Legal Background
Abu Rahmah, the coordinator of the Bil'in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was acquitted of two out of the four charges brought against him in the indictment - stone-throwing and a ridiculous and vindictive arms possession charge. According to the indictment, Abu Rahmah collected used tear-gas projectiles and bullet casings shot at demonstrators, with the intention of exhibiting them to show the violence used against demonstrators. This absurd charge is a clear example of how eager the military prosecution is to use legal procedures as a tool to silence and smear unarmed dissent.

The court did, however, find Abu Rahmah guilty of two of the most draconian anti-free speech articles in military legislation: incitement, and organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations. It did so based only on testimonies of minors who were arrested in the middle of the night and denied their right to legal counsel, and despite acknowledging significant ills in their questioning.

The court was also undeterred by the fact that the prosecution failed to provide any concrete evidence implicating Abu Rahmah in any way, despite the fact that all demonstrations in Bil'in are systematically filmed by the army.
Under military law, incitement is defined as "The attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order" (section 7(a) of the Order Concerning Prohibition of Activities of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda (no.101), 1967), and carries a 10 years maximum sentence.