When the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, arrested Mohammad al-Halabi in June of 2016, it held him incommunicado for weeks, denying him access to a lawyer and leaving his family, friends and colleagues without any information about his fate or whereabouts. When Israeli security officials finally announced his arrest nearly two months later, they accused Halabi—the head of the Gaza Strip office of World Vision, a major Christian aid organization—of diverting tens of millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza.
Now, nearly six years later, Halabi is still in pretrial detention, even though he has yet to be convicted of a crime. His detention has dragged on so long that, even under Israeli law, the Supreme Court must extend it every three months. This week, the Supreme Court held a hearing on the 23rd such request. According to Halabi's lawyers, his pretrial detention is the longest in Israeli history. (Separately, Israel commonly holds Palestinians in administrative detention, which amounts to imprisonment without even the pretense of charge or trial.)
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed serious concerns about Halabi's case, including "treatment that may amount to torture," arbitrary detention and lack of a fair trial, partly on account of Israeli prosecutors' reliance on secret evidence and closed proceedings.
While Israeli authorities had no problem making detailed allegations against Halabi publicly when he was first arrested nearly six years ago, the criminal case against him, including any evidence prosecutors may have, has been kept almost entirely secret. The court has not allowed U.N. observers, diplomats, World Vision officials or the public to attend the substantive portions of his years-long trial. Nor has the court allowed observers, diplomats or officials to view trial documents, despite the irregularities of these legal proceedings.
Although Halabi is from the Gaza Strip and neither an Israeli citizen nor Israeli resident, the charges against him somehow include treason—a capital offense under Israeli law.
As outrageous as the Halabi trial may be—for how it has stretched the Israeli legal system to the limits of credulity, and because it involves a reputable international humanitarian organization—it would be a mistake to see it as an anomaly.
- Michael Omer-Man
Halabi's lawyers, Maher Hanna and Jonathan Kuttab, say they've been allowed to see Israel's secret evidence. While they are not allowed to describe it, they insist its persuasiveness is "embarrassing."
Hanna spoke to DAWN following the latest Supreme Court hearing on their client's continued pretrial detention. In the hearing, Hanna and Kuttab offered to pay for private security, electronic monitoring and round-the-clock surveillance if their client were granted bail—all of which the state opposed in court.
Most compellingly, they pointed out that Israeli prosecutors don't actually have a problem with releasing Halabi. At numerous junctures over the past four years, Israel has offered Halabi plea deals that would have let him walk free on time served had he admitted guilt. On principle, he has stubbornly refused.
The Israeli Supreme Court has yet to make a decision about whether to extend Halabi's detention for the 23rd time. The judge is expected to hand down his decision in the coming week. The trial court that heard the criminal case has not given any indication of when it may announce a verdict.
As outrageous as the Halabi trial may be—for how it has stretched the Israeli legal system to the limits of credulity, and because it involves a reputable international humanitarian organization—it would be a mistake to see it as an anomaly. Incommunicado detention, seeking forced confessions using torture and inhumane treatment, the use of secret evidence, and using arbitrary detention as a tool to pressure detainees into accepting plea deals are the rule, not the exception, for Palestinians in both the Israeli civilian and military legal systems.
"They chose to attack an NGO that has a humanitarian role in Gaza to claim that all the NGOs are helping Hamas. They chose the wrong person."
- Maher Hanna, Mohammad al-Halabi's lawyer
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What about this case makes it so unique, the only case of its kind where there's such a long detention with no conviction?
Maher Hanna: The prosecution never presented any evidence except for one piece of secret evidence that I cannot . . . I'm prevented from talking about it, which is nothing. I can assure you that it's nothing. Except for that evidence, they never presented any objective evidence against Mohammad.
We gave them all the materials related to Gaza, all the materials of World Vision in Gaza. We had to bring all the witnesses to contradict the charges against him. It's the first time that we, as the defense, bring the witnesses.
The prosecution didn't want any witnesses. They said, "If you bring witnesses from Gaza, we will arrest them." We said, okay, no problem. The witnesses agreed to be arrested because they said the allegations are nonsense, so we brought them, they testified, and they contradicted every allegation in the charge sheet. They couldn't address the evidence because the state doesn't have any evidence; they could only dispute the allegations in the charge sheet.
Why do you think they went after Mohammad?
They chose to attack an NGO that has a humanitarian role in Gaza to claim that all the NGOs are helping Hamas. They chose the wrong person.
Mohammad prevented Hamas from taking advantage of humanitarian aid. He rejected [World Vision's] requests to bring dual-use items into Gaza because he feared Hamas might take it. He rejected, for example, the idea of cash assistance in Gaza. He said, "No, if you give people cash, it might go to the wrong hands."
We brought all the evidence to prove that. Now we are waiting for the final judgment in the case. [It has been more than six months since closing arguments were made, and the court has made no indication when it will hand down a verdict.]
And I understand that World Vision is still standing behind Mohammad?
World Vision did a forensic audit and found that nothing was missing. It would have been much easier for World Vision to cast Mohammad aside and say that if something was missing, we will fix it and enact a new system. But they checked carefully, they did an outside audit. The Germans and the Australians [both funders of World Vision's work] checked and nothing is missing. These were very thorough checks. It was very clear that there is no evidence.
As a Christian organization that is committed to its principles, they are committed to the truth. In this case, the truth stands with Mohammad.
In your opinion, is holding him in prison during trial, six years of detention—was that all an attempt to pressure him to accept a plea deal because of the lack of evidence?
If so, they chose the wrong person and organization, and with great humility, maybe the wrong lawyers.
Update: On Feb. 22, 2022, the Israeli Supreme Court extended Mohammad al-Halabi's detention for another 90 days.