Earlier this year, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights (LPHR) and Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association submitted a complaint to the United Nations Working Group for Arbitrary Detention about the ongoing Israeli military detention of three female Birzeit students. Head of LPHR's Student Protection Project, Aleisha Ebrahimi spoke to us about the response.
What is the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and why did you decide to submit a legal complaint to the body?
The United Nations Human Rights Council has special procedures which comprise of independent human rights experts who investigate, report and advise on specific human rights issues, known as thematics, or specific countries. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is one of these special procedures and is made up of a body of five independent human rights experts, who have a mandate to consider and investigate cases of arbitrary detention. Detention of an individual is permitted under international law, but in order to remain compliant with international human rights law, it must conform to certain requirements. Detention is deemed as arbitrary, that is when it is underpinned and authorised by an autocracy or a misuse of authority, in instances when it contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or other relevant international law instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Arbitrary detention is therefore unlawful detention of an individual and is likely to be in breach of multiple international human rights law provisions.
The Working Group assesses and investigates alleged cases of arbitrary detention, known as ‘individual cases’, reaching out to the relevant government for clarification and then adopts opinions which state the arbitrariness of the detention. The Working Group also undertakes official ‘country visits’ to better understand the extent to which detention is lawfully conducted in different states.
Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights (LPHR), as part of the Tom Hurndall Student Protection Project, has been carefully monitoring the systematic arrest and detention of Palestinian university students, primarily from Birzeit University, and has identified multiple and grave human rights violations in the arrests and detention of three female Birzeit University students: Ms Layan Kayed, Ms Elyaa Abu Hijla and Ms Ruba Asi. The clear arbitrary nature of their detention, and the multiple human rights violations which flow from both the deprivation of liberty (which includes a complete block to their university education) and the harshness of the prison setting exacerbated further within the context of the global pandemic, prompted LPHR to submit a complaint to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
What decision has the UN Working Group reached in relation to the three female Birzeit students detained by Israel's military authorities?
LPHR offered an overview of each of the three female Birzeit University students, including: the fact that none have had previous engagement with the law; the use of terrifying night raids on family homes which utilised excessive military presence to arrest Elyaa and Ruba after midnight; and the lawful nature of the students’ activities all three were undertaking as part of a democratic student group, which the Israeli authorities have used as a means to justify their arrest and detention, in contravention of international law.
In analysing the three cases, LPHR assessed that the detention of the three female Birzeit University students was arbitrary, falling under two of the five UN Working Group’s categories of arbitrary detention: categories II and V. Category II is engaged when the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of the rights or freedoms guaranteed by international human rights law, which LPHR believes lawful student activity to be. Category V is engaged when the deprivation of liberty constitutes a violation of international law for reasons which relate to discrimination; LPHR asserts that the three female Birzeit University students were targeted and discriminated against for being Palestinian.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention upheld our legal analysis and found that the detention of the three female Birzeit University students is arbitrary under categories II and V of their mandate. The Working Group formally wrote to the State of Israel to ask for confirmation of the legal basis of the arrests and detentions of the three females. The Israeli Government declined to respond to communication from the United Nations Working Group and in the absence of information indicating a legal basis for arrest and detention, the Working Group further found that the arrests and detentions were therefore arbitrary under Category I as they lacked a legal basis. Additionally, the United Nations Working Group found detention to be arbitrary under Category III, which is engaged when there is a total or partial non-observation of international norms in relation to the right to a fair trial. This category was determined given all three female Birzeit University students were charged under military order, despite being civilians, and were tried in a military court, contrary to international law requirements.
As a result of our submission, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has referred the matter of Layan, Elyaa and Ruba to the Special Rapporteur on violence and against women, its causes and consequences, and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls for appropriate action. The Working Group has further referred the cases to the following special procedures: the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 for further appropriate action. The breadth of the referrals indicate the extent to which the fundamental human rights of Layan, Elyaa and Ruba have been breached in direct and clear contravention of international law.
What is significant about the Working Group's decision and what do you hope will be the outcomes of this?
As stated above, the findings affirm our legal analysis of the human rights violations which have occurred as a result of the unlawful arrests and detentions of Layan, Elyaa and Ruba. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has unequivocally identified gross and multiple breaches of international human rights law, indicating that similar arrests and detentions of Palestinian university students will also constitute breaches of international human rights law, which are harsh, punitive and discriminatory in nature.
Further the opinion supports our position that the Israeli military laws which are being used to justify the targeting and detaining of Palestinian students are fundamentally incompatible with the international human rights law framework, as the arbitrary detention of Layan, Elyaa and Ruba falls within a systematic policy and practice of criminalising Palestinians for exercising civil and political rights. From the beginning of the military occupation in June 1967 through to July 2019, Israel’s Defence Ministry has outlawed 411 civic associations and political organisations as under the Defence (Emergency) Regulations (1945).
LPHR hopes that the opinion of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention supports our advocacy and will result in the release of Layan and Ruba, who remain in military arbitrary detention since their arrests on 8 June 2020 and 9 July 2020, respectively (all three female university students were subjected to military renewals of their detention which created a state of extreme uncertainty and prolonged their detention). We also hope that the opinion dissuades the Israeli authorities from their escalating and discriminatory campaign of systematically identifying, arresting and detaining Palestinian university students for lawful student activity.
What is the current status of Layan, Elyaa and Ruba and since the last interview you gave? How has the treatment of Palestinian students in the West Bank by Israel's military authorities changed?
Layan and Ruba, unfortunately, remain in detention. Layan is 23 years old and was sentenced to 16 months of imprisonment and fined 6,000 NIS (approximately $1,820) on 21 March 2021. Layan has now been in continuous military detention for over a year, following her arrest on 8 June 2020.
Ruba is 20 years old and was sentenced to 21 months of imprisonment and fined 3,000 NIS (approximately $925) on 3 May 2021. Ruba has now been in continuous military detention for close to a year, following her arrest on 9 July 2020.
Elyaa is 21 years old and was sentenced to 11 months of imprisonment on 23 December 2020 and fined 1,500 NIS (approximately $465). Elyaa was released on 10 May 2021, after over ten months in military detention since her arrest on 1 July 2020.
All three female Birzeit University students have experienced severe disruption to their tertiary education.
With respect to the broader treatment of West Bank Palestinian university students, the numbers indicate that the systematic campaign of harassment is both sustained and is intensifying; the current global pandemic has not deterred the Israeli authorities from arbitrarily detaining Palestinian university students, despite calls not to detain individuals unnecessarily due to the inherent and heightened risk that COVID-19 poses in confined spaces. Addameer, an NGO in Ramallah, Occupied West Bank, that works to support Palestinian political prisoners, with whom we work closely on the Student Protection Project, recently shared photos of Israeli soldiers affixing posters of detained students on the Birzeit University campus. The photos indicate that other students would soon be targeted in a similar fashion. In addition to the severe human rights violations, we are also seeing a campaign which is clearly intended to incite fear in this generation of Palestinian university students.
Aleisha Ebrahimi is on the Executive Committee of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights and is head of the Student Protection Project. She is a PhD Candidate in gender and law and Teaching Fellow at UCL Laws where she teaches public law.