Access to minors now restricted in the military courts
[19 January 2020] – Until recently public access to hearings in Israeli military courts in the West Bank was generally permitted upon application. This position was reflected in the text of an information sheet (Information Sheet: October 2018) distributed by the authorities at Ofer military court stating that:
“As a rule, proceedings in the Military Courts are open to the public. Military Courts strictly uphold the publicity of hearings in general, and the presence of family members in particular, especially in cases involving minors. Journalists, NGO representatives and other observers are often present at these hearings.”
In cases involving children the information sheet went on to state that:
“Trials are held in closed session and parents of the defendant shall be awarded special rights during the trial. As a matter of policy, people who are not direct family members of the defendant can be present as long as the minor and family agree.”
In practice, the general policy to allow public access to hearings involving children has now changed, with most military judges excluding outside observers even in cases where parents have requested their presence. This change is reflected in an amended information sheet which adds a sentence referring to the judge’s discretion to deny entry to the public based on “best interest” considerations (Information Sheet: June 2019
) and a subsequent amended military order (MO 1822
“As a matter of policy, people who are not direct family members of the defendant can be present as long as the minor and his family agree. In any event, the judge has the right to deny entry to the court if he feels it is in the best interest of the minor to do so.”
Recent examples of this development include:
- On 12 December 2019, a delegation of law students from Hebrew University were denied access to Court No. 7 at Ofer military court by Judge Lieut. Col. Shmuel Kedar even though the parents requested their presence. When an attempt was made to obtain reasons from judge Kedar for his decision, a court officer stated, without objection from the judge, that “there are no reasons” as he ushered the delegation out of the courtroom.
- On 6 January 2020, a delegation from the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme were denied access to Court No. 2 at Ofer military court by Judge Shemzar Shagor even though the parents requested their presence. The judge, who spoke through a court security officer, stated that “hearings involving minors are held behind closed doors” – a statement that does not accurately reflect the written policy of the military courts.
- On 16 January 2020, a delegation from Harvard University were denied access to court No. 7 by Judge Lieut. Col. Shlomo Katz even though the parents requested their presence. The judge stated that he wanted to “protect the identity of the child” although he was informed that the group had no intention of publicizing the name of the child. In these circumstances in the past judges sought non-disclosure undertakings from observers and allowed them to remain.
While the military courts continue to distribute an information sheet stating that: “As a matter of policy, people who are not direct family members of the defendant can be present as long as the minor and his family agree” in practice, the policy appears now to be that hearings involving children are closed, even against the wishes of parents. Although this development is framed in terms of the “best interests” of the child, this claim cannot be verified as the judges rarely provide adequate reasons for their decisions or attempt to ascertain the child’s best interests.
MCW will continue to monitor developments.