Friday, January 14, 2011

Nuri behind bars, or: how an activist for Bedouin rights is treated

I already had several occasions to write here about Nuri el-Okbi, head of the Association for the Defence of Bedouins' Rights in Israel, a honest and just person whose like cannot be easily found.

Nuri was born, 1942, at al-Arakib in the Negev. As a child he saw the army of the new state arrive at the area, and three years later, in 1951, that army's troops expelled him and his family from their home and their village. Only for six months, they were told, but they were never allowed to return.

After growing up Nuri, like many Bedouins who had lost their lands and traditional life style, went to live in the city of Lod. There he opened a garage in 1964, to support his family - but he never forgot the village from which he was uprooted. A few years ago, no longer young nor in the best of health, he took action: returning alone to Arakib and setting up a tent near the ruins of the house where he was born. There he lived for several years, enduring the heat of the day and the cold of the desert night.

Until the police came to arrest him, and in the Beersheba court he was charged with being "a serial invader of state lands" and his release was conditioned upon his undertaking never again to set foot in the place where he was born. With an effort, his lawyer got for him the right to at least go travel on the road from Beersheba to Tel Aviv, from which that place can briefly be seen from afar. "Thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land ..."

Nuri painfully resigned himself to the decree of renewed exile, devoting himself to what he was still allowed to do – to spend some more time with his family, and join the struggle of his people and his community. For example, the struggle of the Arab residents in Lod, whom the municipality considers to be a nuisance and "a demographic threat", in token of which it periodically sends bulldozers to demolish their "illegally built" homes. But also in the city of Lod the law enforcement authorities soon took an interest in Nuri, and he was charged with maintaining a business without a permit – to wit, that modest little garage which was established nearly fifty years ago.

The court ruled that since the Lod Municipality cancelled Nuri's business permit, for reasons which remain undisclosed, he should have immediately closed down the garage, that he failed to do so and that city inspectors found him working there. Nuri claimed that on the day the inspectors carried out their inspection he was undergoing a medical examination at the hospital. Nevertheless, the court found him guilty. The judge noted that prison sentences of up to six months could be commuted to community work and specifically advised Nuri to find a place where he could do such work. Nuri did find a Ramla soup kitchen whose managers were happy to have him.

However, when he arrived at court to hear his sentence, Nuri got another unexpected blow. He was not sentenced to six months but to seven – one month more than the maximum which can be commuted to community service. A pity for the soup kitchen, but Nuri will be seven months behind bars for the crime of continuing the garage whose permit the Municipality of Lod withdrew. In addition, Nuri is to pay a fine of 40,000 Shekels, failing which he would be held for an additional 400 days in prison.

Judge Zacharia Yemini stated explicitly in his verdict the reasons why he chose to deal so harshly with Nuri el-Okbi. Precisely because he is active in defense of the rights of the Bedouins he must be punished far beyond others, so as "to send a message to the Bedouins that they must obey the law".

Adv. Avi Dubin, Nuri's lawyer, asked the court to delay implementation of the sentence pending the lodging of an appeal. As is common in the Israeli judicial system. As was granted on the same week to a rather famous defendant named Moshe Katsav, who was found guilty of several charges a bit more serious than running a business without a license. But the judge conditioned Nuri's release upon the immediate depositing of 30,000 Shekels in cash, a sum he did not have. On the way to prison he collapsed, and spet some days in Assah Harofeh Hospital - under heavy guard.

How Nuri feels you can read in his own words, in two poems which he wrote inside the walls of Ma'asiyahu Prison and dictated over the phone to Haya Noach, activist of the Negev Coexistence Forum.

Sent to Prison by The Law

The man asked for six days off,
Before seven months in prison undergoing.
I'll grant you this, said the Justice
If 30 000 Shekel you instantly produce!
Otherwise, prison for you and no mercy.
Seven months
And also 40 000 Shekels
Or 400 more jail days in jail!
Flu and a heart condition,
Bound hand and foot in hospital
Bound to the bed,
Two prison guards for the patient,
With chains and pistols,
No visitors,
No talking, no friends.
Prison doctor and hospital doctor consult
Conclude: back to jail.
There to wait many days
For medicine and treatment.
Stuffy little cell, full of smokers.
This punishment you deserve
Having worked for publics
With no license of municipal government.

Ma'asiyahu Prison, Ramla, January 8, 2011.

Good morning

Good morning!
People crammed into small cells
Cockroaches running
Industrious vermin
Climbing the walls
Guards shouting
Good Morning prisoners
Count, count they say
Get up, get counted
Hassan and Sameh stand up
Mohammed and Shlomo are sleeping
Guards threaten
Take out red card
Writing report
Hundreds Shekels fine!
Small cockroaches run
Odor of smoke
Report writing
Standing on guard
Stand up, the warders count
Prisoners dressed in orange
Guilty, not guilty
Weak, sick or healthy
Everyone, everyone is equal.

.Ma'asiyahu Prison, Ramleh 01/13/2011

Afterwords: Nuri el-Okbi is still at this moment in his Ma'asiyahu cell. The first of his appeal will be heard on Monday, January 24, 2011 at 10:00 am before Judge Dr. Eliakim Stoller of the Petach Tikva District Court (20 Hess Street, Petach Tikva).

Meanwhile, Nuri's friends and well wishers managed to convince him to let the sum of 30,000 Shekels set by the court could be deposited and his release pending the appeal be gained. Nuri only consented after being completely convinced that the money would only be deposited temporarily, pending the end of the judicial proceedings, and be eventually returned to its owners.

Those willing to participate in raising the bail needed for the release of Nuri el-Okbi are asked to contact Yoav at +972-(0)522-673467,

This afternoon, after having already started writing this blog, Nuri called me from the pay phone in the prison courtyard with an urgent request: "Please call the Animal Welfare Hotline on my behalf. Here in Wing Two of Ma'asiyahu Prison there is among the buildings a wounded little cat. I feed him and do what I can for him, but he needs to be taken to the vet."