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Israel/Gaza: UN Experts Condemn Destruction Of Judicial Infrastructure, Call For Protection Of Justice Operators

UN experts* on 16 April called for the protection of justice operators in Israel and condemned the destruction of judicial infrastructure in Gaza.

The experts deplored reports that on 9 October 2023 the Israeli army bombed the building which housed the local headquarters of the Palestine Bar Association, resulting in the destruction of its official archives.

On 4 December 2023, the Israeli army released a video showing the complete blasting of the building of Gaza’s empty courthouse, seized in November 2023.

“The right to a fair trial and access to justice require adequate infrastructure and efficient protection for all actors in the administration of justice, as well as for case files and documentation. We are alarmed by this unnecessary destruction of the judicial infrastructure in Gaza,” the experts said.

The experts noted that since early October 2023, Israeli lawyers, including Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who opposed the ongoing Israeli attack in Gaza or who have spoken in defense of Palestinian rights, have encountered harassment from other members of the legal profession and were the subject of complaints to the Israeli Bar Association for their public speech.

“It is regrettable that judges have been attacked online after making decisions to release individuals that were arrested for speech or activism in support for Palestinian rights,” they said.

On October 12, the Israeli Bar Association emailed all registered lawyers stating that the National Ethics Committee would have “zero tolerance” for any lawyer publishing content on personal social media accounts perceived to be “incitement to violence”, and that the Committee would pursue legal action against such lawyers. The letter did not specify what statements would amount to such “incitement to violence”, having a chilling effect on the freedom of expression of lawyers.

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On 18 October, the Deputy Chairman of the Israel Bar Association posted on social media that the Bar Association Ethics Committee had submitted new emergency regulations to the Minister of Justice, apparently granting the Committee authority to immediately suspend lawyers suspected of “supporting terrorism”.

“We are concerned that the Bar Association’s email was, in fact, a stifling of speech in support of Palestinian rights or opposition to the attacks in Gaza from those in the legal profession,” the experts said.

“Expressing solidarity with Palestinians should not be equated with support for terrorism,” they said. “The legal profession and its free exercise are an essential element of the rule of law, protection of human rights and functioning of an independent judiciary.”

The experts regretted that elected and appointed Israeli officials have released derogatory statements against Israeli judges following their decisions to release individuals unduly detained for their statements or activism in favour of Palestinians’ rights.

“It is the duty of all governmental and other institutions to respect and observe the independence of the judiciary and the imperative of non-discrimination in accordance with international standards,” the experts said.

For example, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s Minister of National Security, labeled a judge a “domestic enemy” on social media after he ordered the release of an individual who posted images on social media that appeared to approve of the 7 October attack by Hamas, on grounds that such posts did not justify detention. In another case, Minister Ben-Gvir claimed on social media that a judge was an “enemy from within” following his order to release an Israeli activist who was detained after police discovered Palestinian flags during a search of the activist’s home.

“Public officials should refrain from statements demonising judges who uphold the rule of law and human rights,” they said. “Such public attacks are a direct interference with their independence.”

The experts have been in contact with Israel about these concerns.

The experts: Margaret Satterthwaite, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Irene Kahn, Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion.

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