Saturday, May 15, 2004

Lawyers will hold conventions

Lawyers will hold conventions and Eilat, before the summer heat arrives in full force is a lovely location. Of course, you cannot have a convention if you do not have invited speakers and what could be more appropriate than to have the newly appointed Attorney General Meni Mazuz, among the distinguished guests.

Mazuz, is still a relatively new face in the media, but his speech became front page news. When speaking at a discussion on “The Limits of Obedience to the Law” he evoked an enormous public response, when he declared, “I have a lot of understanding and sympathy for each conscientious refusenik – in every respect. It is a positive thing that people follow the dictates of their conscience. This could be a positive phenomenon representing social involvement and concern.” Mazuz added that “Freeedom of conscience can be seen as one of the attributes of human dignity.” Mazuz, in the context of an analysis of the relevant court decisions regarding refusal to serve, was cautious enough to qualify his statement with comments to the effect that the balance between freedom of conscience and refusal (”sarbanut”) must be reached in accordance with the circumstances of time and place.

According to Ma’ariv (May 11, 2004), Advocate Shlomo Cohen, head of the Israeli Bar Association, stated that the punishment against the refuseniks was totally unacceptable since the legal basis for the blanket deferment of religious yeshiva students was still vague.

The IDF Chief Judge Advocate, General Menakhem Finklestein was on hand to vigorously disagree: “Violation of the law in a democratic society is immoral, in and of itself. If we accept that morals permit non-compliance with the law – this would entail enormous jeopardy …what we have experienced recently is not a question of individual conscience but a matter of civil revolt.” (Ha’aretz, May 11, 2004).

Mazuz’s comments and the response by the military reflect differences of opinion among high ranking government legal circles over the IDF policy. The IDF has initiated a get tough campaign resulting in the victimization of five leading refuseniks currently in prison, Haggai Matar, Noam Bahat, Shimri Tsameret, Adam Maor and Matan Kaminer - in order to fight the growing influence of the draft resistance movement. It appears that there is an intense, ongoing discussion in government circles regarding the legality and the wisdom of the draconic sentences against the five, now serving their second year in prison. We will have occasion to return to the Mazuz statements and other aspects of this issue. However, at this point, we can state conclusively that the IDF initiated a change of policy in the spring of 2003 designed to deter draft resisters by putting them on trial – and prosecuting them – in practice if not formally - for ‘fomenting a civil revolt.’ The formal charge of ‘refusing to obey an order’ was no more than a ruse to get an easy conviction.

The Lack of Proportionality

Many liberal circles in the country are concerned over the punishment being inflicted on the five (and their families). The very same day that the Mazuz story was front page news in the country, thirty professors and teachers of law at Israeli universities issued a statement directed to the Attorney General, Mazuz, Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon,the Minister of Defense, Shaul Mofaz and the Minister of Justice, Yosef Lapid declaring that “we the undersigned, who have different opinions regarding the various types of ‘refusal’ (”sarbanut”) hereby express our opposition to the sentence issued by the IDF Military Court against Haggai Matar, Matan Kaminer, Shimri Tsameret, Adam Maor and Noam Bahat. The signers noted that the court did not question the sincerity of the five and characterized the sentence as unduly harsh, and particularly unfair considering the expressed readiness of the five to do various forms of community service and concluded with the call for the immediate release of the five. Among the signatories: Professors Gad Barzalai, Miri Gur Aryeh, Haim Ganz, Alon Harel, Meir Teichman, Uriel Procaccia, Francis Radai, David Enoch and others. The ad was published in Ha’aretz, May 11, 2004.

The Next Step: the Battle for Parole

It is customary for prisoners held by the IDF to be considered for parole after one half or two thirds of the sentence. Last January, the IDF had the five transferred to two separate civilian prisons because keeping them in a military prison would ‘constitute a security threat.’ However, the IDF is still in charge of the five. It will be rather difficult for the authorities to deny the fact that the five are model prisoners who deserve parole for the simple reason that the five have all devoted, on a voluntary basis, a lot of time and effort to act as teachers and educators for other prisoners. This has included teaching Hebrew to illiterates, teaching music and a class in guitar, and responsibility for extending assistance to young prisoners with difficult personal problems. However, it is to be feared that the IDF will try and continue its campaign of vilification and defamation and insist on denying parole to the five because of the ‘terrible nature of the crime’ they have committed – the fact that they said no to the occupation and refused to be a part of it.!!

It is, of course, particularly important to intensify the campaign for the release of the five towards the meeting of the parole committee on June 15, 2004. The refusal to extend parole to the five would be justly considered as an additional act of flagrant discrimination and judicial persecution.

It is our duty to inform our readers that parole, if and when achieved does not end the struggle. The IDF prosecution has publicly announced that it will insist on the remobilization of the five after they serve out their sentence. It has become a major aim of the Israeli military bureaucracy to break the spirit of these young men and it is the responsibility of defenders of human rights, partisans of peace and genuine friends of a different and better Israel to make every effort to prevent this from happening. The five, the Parents’ Forum and its allies in Israel and around the world are determined to do everything in their power to free the five!