Judicial and cyber terrorism in Israel
Declaring bloggers to be terrorists is an extreme response to criticism of public officials - has the Israel Court Administration created a civil war against its citizens?
The hunt for Israeli Jewish bloggers writing against judges, social workers and police prosecutors began two years before the wave of arrests of over a dozen people in February 2017. The State has used laws it claims is mainly for international terrorist threats.
Three people remain in detention - Lory Shem Tov, Moti Leybel and Human Rights Advocate Zvi Zer.
Despite weekly hearings with arresting Judge Avraham Heiman, the trio remain in detention, the demand made by the prosecution is to have them held until the end of proceedings.
An indictment was made on 6th April 2017, 91 charges of insulting public officials, invasion of privacy by publishing pictures of them found in the public domain, parodies, publishing minors who were at risk from the welfare (with permission of parents).
Since the flurry of mainstream news, in which they were declared cyber terrorists, with international funding to help them to become a huge risk to the State of Israel – there has been a remarkable violation of legal procedures. No mainstream news has published a word since the indictment, yet the trial is unprecedented – having judges themselves as prosecution witnesses. It appears the method of collecting information was more cyber terrorist in nature than the naivety of the bloggers who took few if any precautions when writing or making phone calls. Two years at least of phone tapping, acquiring private information and hacking emails brought a mass of material to accuse over a dozen people of cyber terrorism the State say was designed to destroy the country.
From April 6th, according to the law, all the evidence was ordered to be with the defence within 30 days. A massive initial 20,000 documents. Hearings took place twice weekly. One with the trial judge Benny Sagi – to establish that they had read the indictment and had legal representation. The other hearing with Judge Heiman to request house arrest. The prosecution claimed the defendants were too dangerous to the public to be allowed to go home. The dangerousness was questioned by the defence team, but the prosecution were not willing to share the reasons, claiming it was all in secret files. In the case of the lawyer, 11 files were prohibited to be seen by his lawyers.
Numerous appeals took place in the Supreme Court, each time rejected. The premise of innocent before being proven guilty was surrendered by the legal system at the point of the first rejection. Leading lawyers claimed from this point, the detentions had become illegal.
With over 300 complaints, the witnesses for the prosecution comprise of judges, social workers, prosecution lawyers, and police. The chance of a fair trial has evaporated. Two of the defendants have been named in numerous other protocols of parents fighting for their children and used as a reason why parents could not keep or have their children returned. Complaints have been made against various parents who either knew Leybel and Shemtov, or availed themselves of help from the activists against the welfare. Any subject in Israel written about by Shemtov brought complaints from lawyers, judges and social workers naming those people or just regular parents as a focus of trouble. What is clear from the complaints is that other activists from other fields are also named in the files. This clearly marks them too, although it is only allegedly in connection with who wrote about them. Many of them were headline mainstream news at the time, yet no mainstream journalist was arrested when publishing stories about them, nor other social media bloggers.
The ramifications have been wide. On 10th October, following assessments finally agreed by the courts, the 3 defendants will present their ‘dangerousness’ reports to Judge Heiman who will make a decision as to whether they can be placed under house arrest. The families who will take them have to disconnect wifi, have no mobile phones or internet connection, and the detainee can only use a land line. They can go outside if escorted to a lawyer’s office, and cannot touch a keyboard.
Due to the extreme conditions of their detention, they have been unable to get full access to the materials. Particularly in the case of their investigation CDs. The opportunity to defend has been severely restricted if not obliterated.
Social media fills up with discussions of pro/against, or innocence or guilt of those detained. The activists were forceful and it is clear that the crime of insult was committed. However, for a number of years, both activists were in constant civil litigation, which then was suddenly switched to criminal prosecution. Israel watches its Facebook users vigilantly, and takes posts down; blocks users or uses information published in family court proceedings.
Despite both private and public lawyers pleading weekly, the Judge has stood firm, claiming the defendants are of great danger to the public. Perhaps, given the nature of the blogging, the danger is really perceived as being to the witnesses and the risk the bloggers may continue to expose the abuses of the judiciary. The word terrorist is regularly used in the arrest hearings.
The investigation created thousands of documents: bank statements, credit card statements and phone records of many people who were NOT arrested, nor involved in any activism! Whatsapp records were taken of all conversations from a number of phones for over a year. Wordpress denied access to the IP addresses of the USA sites despite repeated efforts by the police and even the head of the Court Administration. The insult of judges is not illegal in the USA, and most of the websites were based there, deeming any criticism to be legal.
Shemtov, with legal advice, fought hard to preserve her sites. Wordpress continued to withhold giving data to Israel. It is still unknown how the prosecution did manage to get all the IP addresses. Sources say the only route would have been to order the US under the Patriot Act. This would involve designating the group as being terrorists. This indeed was quoted at the time of arrest by mainstream press – "cyber terrorist gang with international funding".
It might also explain why dangerousness has been the key to every appeal for house arrest. If charges were made by securing information under the Patriot Act, then the prosecution would be compelled to continue on the theme of terrorism or the information may be deemed as obtained by false pretenses. The investigations also linked the bloggers to the Civil Society in Israel – Coalition for Children & Families. This would automatically slur the association as being involved in cyber terrorism too, causing great damage to their work for families and reporting legitimate violations of the welfare or judiciary.
Another focus of the investigation was the site named ‘horimisrael’ based in Iceland. The platform is regarded as one of the most friendly to human rights activists and bloggers worldwide, and therefore protected its reputation and privacy vociferously.
In a recent hearing, the demand for defense material was debated. Sources say the prosecution were reluctant to hand over certain materials. They claimed it was due to it being ‘internal memoranda’. Under the MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty), the evidence must be handed over to the defense under the ruling Brady v Maryland in the Supreme Court in the USA. Material must be disclosed even if favourable to the defense.
The human rights lawyer in detention, with comprehensive knowledge of both Israel and US laws, argued that the prosecution could not use the reason/excuse of internal memoranda whilst simultaneously using the USA treaties to obtain information as the State of Israel itself, on official letterheads or emails.
What should have progressed from the indictment stage was house arrest and preparation for trial in September. Now it is October and the trial has vague dates set; the defense teams still have not access to all materials, nor have the defendants seen a fraction of it. Hundreds of CD’s with filmed interrogations have been denied to the detainees inside prison. What should have been a civil matter of insulting public officials burgeoned into a cyber terrorism investigation, with no proof that any terrorist groups were funding these independent bloggers, nor their legal advisor. The detainees are facing their 8th month incarcerated under severe conditions.
It may be a high tree to climb down from, for once things were set in motion, it is clear the State System is concerned now to NOT make heroes of the detainees. House arrest would be seen as a victory for the defendants, which still entails huge restrictions ahead of the 5/6 month trial. It is likely that they will not return to any form of freedom for at least a year, and then depending on the verdict perhaps more prison time.
Serious violations by judges and welfare were exposed. Painful stories of suffering of parents in family courts and the open secret in Israel that protocols bear little resemblance to events behind closed doors. It may be understandable why the bloggers went to such extremes to get their message across. But does the State need to retaliate to such a similar extreme in naming and shaming the defendants; or any other person who crossed their path. Does the State need to lock up bloggers and a human rights lawyer and treat them like convicted criminals pre trial. Protests have continued for 46 weeks in Israel fighting against the corruption of the judiciary and freedom of speech issues.
Many activists have had regular visits with the detainees, and have told stories of how they are being treated, and how the long incarceration with no end in sight is having an affect on them. Due to strict censorship, and the confusion of open and closed doors each hearing, it is unlikely the general public will be informed of one of the largest trials and take down of free speech in the history of Israel.