Palestinian prisoner of conscience on trial for defending right to protest

By Amnesty International’s Israel/OPT/PA Campaigner

It’s a year since Bassem Tamimi was arrested by the Israeli army for organizing non-violent protests against the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on land belonging to his village.

The 44-year-old father of three lives in al-Nabi Saleh in the occupied West Bank. Prior to his arrest on 24 March 2011 he was a public employee and studied for a Masters degree. His military trial continues.

In the meantime, Bassem, a prisoner of conscience, remains in detention awaiting the verdict, while his family in al-Nabi Saleh continue to be harassed by the Israeli military.

Most recently, Israeli forces raided his house at around 2am on 21 March, when his wife, mother, and three children were sleeping.  About 10 heavily armed soldiers entered and searched the house without presenting a warrant. They left after an hour and confiscated two computers, a camera, and some CDs and papers.

A video of the raid shows Nariman, Bassem’s wife, asking the soldiers to explain their actions, but the soldiers refuse to answer. It also shows five armed soldiers, some of them masked, searching a room where the terrified children are in bed.

When I talked to Nariman the day after the raid, she seemed, as usual, in high spirits. She told me, laughing, “That is expected from the Israeli army. It is their way of commemorating one year since they arrested Bassem.”

“We are by now unfortunately used to them targeting our village and its families. They use bullets, tear gas, detention, unfair trials, and raid houses in the middle of the night while children are sleeping.”

“But what is a raid on our home compared to a killing?” she asked me, referring to the killing of Mustafa Tamimi by Israeli forces last December. He was shot in the face with a tear gas canister at close range.

I first met Bassem when I went to interview Nariman and two of her sisters who had been arrested and detained on the same day in 2010.

Sitting in the family’s home, amidst shattered windows, the curtains burned from tear gas shot by the Israeli army into the house, I’d finished my interview when Bassem came in.

His words demonstrated his solidarity with his wife. He told me proudly of the important role she played in the village, how she carried a camera to document the protests.

He said that the Israeli army was putting her on trial on trumped up charges in a bid to silence her.

Back then, a possible jail sentence was hanging over Nariman; but for the working mother of three, the cost of fighting such charges was prohibitive.

She was offered a ‘deal’, a guilty plea for an offence she had never committed, a fine and conditional release.I remember Bassem saying that this should not be allowed to happen, but it was obvious that the family had little choice but to accept the plea bargain.

Then came Bassem’s turn to challenge similar injustice as he fell foul of what he believes to be an ongoing effort to silence him and his fellow villagers.

The last time I saw him was in the military court in November 2011, when I went as an observer, part of an Amnesty International mission.

The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee helped me gain permission to enter the Ofer military base in the occupied West Bank so I could observe the court session.

When I arrived, the session had begun.

I sat in the observer area, with diplomats and human rights monitors. Proceedings were conducted in Hebrew with one soldier providing short, weak translations into Arabic.

The military judge, a high-ranking female soldier, was to hear the testimony of Islam Dar Ayoub, a 14-year-old boy from Bassem’s village.

Islam’s testimony, taken by Israeli interrogators under duress, was the main evidence the military prosecution had against Bassem for inciting violence.

But this part of the session was deferred. It appeared that the military prosecution had failed to tell the child’s father of the court date. Islam was at school.

We then heard a soldier’s testimony. He alleged he saw Bassem instructing protestors to throw rocks at the army. The defence presented evidence to show that Bassem hadn’t been in the village that day.

All this time Bassem did not seem to be concerned with the proceedings. He greeted everyone and we exchanged some small talk. Most of the time, Bassem was talking to his wife, who sat in another part of the court.

After discussing administrative matters and setting the date of the next session, the court adjourned and Bassem returned to his cell.

I went back to Ramallah that day with Nariman and another young man from al-Nabi Saleh who came in support of Bassem.

When I said goodbye that day, I felt that whenever I see them next, no matter what new injustice they face, they will always defend their human rights.

This injustice should not be allowed to continue.

Bassem Tamimi should be released immediately and unconditionally, and the Israeli authorities should immediately stop the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements – which violate international law – as a first step towards removing Israeli civilians living in them.

At the very least, the residents of al-Nabi Saleh must be allowed to protest peacefully against illegal Israeli settlements without the fear of Israeli military violence.