‘The Israeli authorities must immediately investigate the allegations that Mohammed al-Halabi was mistreated in custody’ - Magdalena Mughrabi
The Israeli authorities must ensure that the trial of a detained humanitarian worker employed by the charity World Vision is fair and open, said Amnesty International on the eve of his trial, amid reports that the proceedings are due to take place in secret.
Mohammed al-Halabi, World Vision’s manager of Gaza operations, is facing 12 charges including being a member of a “terrorist organisation” and siphoning off the charity’s funds for “terrorism” purposes. He was initially denied access to a lawyer and, when she was eventually allowed to meet him, he alleged he’d been seriously mistreated in custody.
The lawyer is prevented from disclosing the details of that allegation, as well as many other elements of the case, by a set of severe restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities on reporting around the case.
The Israel Security Agency arrested Al-Halabi on 15 June at the Erez crossing between Israel and the occupied Gaza Strip, while he was returning home to Gaza from a meeting at World Vision’s office in Jerusalem. He was transferred to a detention centre at Ashkelon in Israel, where he was interrogated before being moved to Nafcha prison in the Negev desert. He wasn’t permitted to see a lawyer until 6 July, three weeks after his arrest, and therefore faced intensive interrogations without legal representation. He wasn’t charged with a crime until 4 August, more than seven weeks after his arrest.
It’s also been reported that Al-Halabi was severely beaten and that a “confession” he made to stealing $7.4m was obtained under duress. Meanwhile, $7.4m appears a dubiously high figure given that, according to World Vision, Al-Halabi and other managers in his position are only able to authorise spending up $15,000 at a time and the organisation’s total Gaza budget for the last decade was approximately $22.5m. Amnesty has also learned that the Israeli authorities have imposed severe reporting restrictions on Al-Halabi’s case. His lawyer said that the restrictions were exponentially more severe than any she’d seen in more than 40 years of legal work. The Israeli authorities have also made a number of statements that risk prejudicing the course of justice. For example, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement treated as fact the allegations that Al-Halabi is a member of Hamas and stole $7.4m a year.
Al-Halabi has worked for World Vision since 2005 and became head of its operations in the Gaza Strip in 2014. World Vision has launched an independent investigation into the allegations and suspended its humanitarian work in Gaza following his arrest. Several governments have announced the suspension of their funding to World Vision’s projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories pending the outcome of the investigation.
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Magdalena Mughrabi said:
“The allegation of stealing money intended to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is extremely serious. This makes it all the more pressing to ensure that Mohammed al-Halabi’s rights are fully respected and that his trial be fair and transparent.
“The welfare of most of the civilian population in Gaza depends on effective delivery of humanitarian assistance. It is crucial that this case does not in any way impact the ability of humanitarian and development organisations such as World Vision to be able to carry out their vital work free from arbitrary restrictions, harassment or intimidation.
“The Israeli authorities must immediately investigate the allegations that Mohammed al-Halabi was mistreated in custody and may have been forced into ‘confessing’ under duress. Any evidence obtained through torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment must be excluded from proceedings. Without independent and impartial investigations into these allegations the trial risks being fundamentally flawed.
“The Israeli authorities must cease all statements that could prejudice the outcome of the trial. Reporting allegations as fact is a violation of the presumption of innocence.”
Israel Security Agency
Between 2001 and 2016 the Israel Security Agency has been named in almost 1,000 complaints of torture and other ill-treatment, but no criminal investigations have been opened.
Since 2007, Israeli forces have maintained an air, sea and land blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has severely restricted the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza, and amounts to collective punishment. Egypt has also largely kept shut the border crossing in Rafah in recent years. The blockade and a series of armed conflicts between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in the last decade have left nearly 80% of Gaza’s population dependent on international humanitarian aid.