Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Minors in Israeli military courts

B'Tselem, a Jerusalem-based NGO, has just released Yael Stein's Minors in Jeopardy: Violation of the Rights of Palestinian Minors by Israel's Military Courts, available here. A summary can be found here. Excerpt:
The military juvenile court does no more than approve plea bargains

The military juvenile court came into existence in 2009 and has been operating ever since. The state considers its establishment a landmark achievement in the protection of minors’ rights in the military justice system. In practice, however, it has failed to improve the safeguarding of the rights of minors facing charges.

The jurisdiction of the military juvenile courts does not extend to minors’ remand hearings, both pre- or post-indictment, despite there being no substantive reason for this limitation and even though the hearings constitute a major part of the legal proceedings against the minors. Remand hearings are held at the ordinary military court. However, when one of the detainees whose case is being heard on a particular day is a minor, the judge instructs the adult detainees and the spectators to leave the courtroom, and hears the minor’s case separately. Yet it is still the same military judge, and it is still the same military courtroom.

The military juvenile court is given the authority to hear the trial itself. Yet trial hearings are very rare because the overwhelming majority of the cases are closed in a plea bargain between the defense and the prosecution; the prosecution usually drops some of the charges, the defendant pleads guilty to others, and the parties agree on the sentence, including the length of the prison term and the fine to be paid. The reason that so many defendants are prepared to enter into plea bargains is the military courts’ policy on detention which results in minors being kept in custody from the time they are arrested until after they serve their prison sentence.

Going through trial while in prison is fraught with a host of difficulties, including multiple, exhausting trips back and forth between the detention facility and the court. In addition, defendants know that if convicted, they will surely be given a prison sentence, and that even in the extremely unlikely event that they are ultimately acquitted, they will probably have been behind bars – in custodial remand – the same or more time as the prison term they would get in a plea bargain.

All this results in a situation in which the military prosecution rarely has to go to trial, in which it would have to present evidence of the minors’ guilt and give them the chance to refute it by examining witnesses and presenting alternative evidence. It is thus that the role of the military juvenile court is reduced to signing off on plea bargains already reached between the prosecution and the defense.

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