Do You Understand The Charges Against You?
Amira Hass reports in Haaretz today that Israel’s military “May Re-Instate Arabic Translations in West Bank Courts,” a headline that forcibly reminded me of just how pervasive the repression of the occupation is, how daily its stumbling blocks and humiliations, and how easy it is to not know very much about it at all.
I had no idea. I write about Israel/Palestine all the time, and read about it even more frequently, but I had no idea that Palestinians tried in Israel’s military courts do not have access to court materials in their own tongue. It would never have crossed my mind that Israel—a country in which Arabic happens to be one of the two official state languages—would do such a thing.
Yet, as it turns out, four Palestinian attorneys have petitioned the military and
[t]he IDF is willing to resume its one-time habit of translating into Arabic the indictments it submits to military courts in the West Bank, but insists there is no need or duty to translate other documents, such as verdicts or court transcripts.
…At present, all documents handed to the prosecution and defense are in Hebrew. Simultaneous translators are still present at the courts, but their duties include other tasks such as maintaining silence and order in the courts, making sure there are security guards, preventing people from entering or leaving the court during trials and helping the judge control the proceedings.
Which is to say: Since the mid-1990s, Palestinians who stand accused by the State of Israel haven’t had the luxury of being able to read the charges against them, and if Israel’s military has its way, will never be able to read their own verdicts. This in courts established exclusively to try people whose mother tongue is Arabic, courts in which prosecutors and judge are fluent in the language of the military authority that rules defendants’ lives, but defendants often are not.
It’s true, of course, that most adult Palestinians can speak at least pidgin Hebrew, and Palestinian attorneys have to be able to negotiate spoken and written Hebrew every day of their professional lives. This is part and parcel of being an occupied people.
And that’s probably why, in its response to the petition, Israel’s State Prosecutor’s Office insisted that
the petitioners failed to establish their claim that the right to due process was damaged by the fact that the documents were not translated, and that international law does not necessitate translating all documents. [The State Prosecutor’s Office] also said that the fact that the documents were not translated for years "did not harm the fairness of the legal processes that took place."
Yet I don’t need it to be enshrined in international law to know that any legal system constituted in such as way as to prevent every single one of its accused from reading his or her own court documents in his or her own native tongue is neither fair, nor morally tenable.
But then again, in a court system in which nearly 100% of cases end in conviction, I should not, perhaps, be surprised. Conventional wisdom in Israel—on all levels of society, from cafes to government offices—is that a Palestinian arrested is a Palestinian guilty. Surely the Palestinians know that already, whether or not they can read the paperwork.
That’s how occupation works.