Monday, December 13, 2010
Sexual Accusations - 'Police strip-search girls'
ISRAEL - New lawsuit exposes dark side of police-settler relations. Underage girls accuse security forces of touching intimate parts, forcing strip searches and making sexual threats. Police: Following protocol
It was the near the end of summer. The time was 3:15 am on a Thursday, when dozens of police officers, border guards and IDF soldiers surrounded Hill 18, near Kiryat Arba.
A group of local teenagers was waiting there, determined to prevent the destruction of six structures built on the hill. As the sun came up the structures became ruins. Six of the teens ended up in a medical clinic that night, but the biggest victim of the Hill 18 evacuation was actually N.
"I climbed the hill with a few girlfriends," she said. "Police blocked our path and one officer briefed the Special Patrol Units who surrounded the hill and physically prevented us from entering. We split up. I managed to reach the top of the structure, but then border guards came and lifted me away. One of them went too far, he put his hand under my shirt and began to feel me up. I was shocked. I yelled, I screamed, but then another officer came, grabbed my behind and lifted me. I kept yelling. Then they dragged me, and my pants coming off. I asked to fix my pants but they wouldn't allow it. Then an officer came and lifted me by inserting his hands between my legs. I felt humiliated and helpless."
When the incident ended, N filed a complaint with the Police Investigation Unit. But when investigators inquired who the policeman was who had hurt her, the 16-year-old girl could not answer because the police officers had removed their ID tags when entering the hill. Whoever allegedly hurt her will probably never be discovered.
'We will rape you all'
"When victims starting contacting me, I didn't want to believe this had really happened," said Noga Hacohen, a social worker for the Binyamin Welfare Department, who was initially exposed to such harassment cases during the Amona evacuation.
"I have collected various testimonies, some very serious – harsh sexual expressions, intentional touching of the breasts, caressing, taking off shirts and even worse," she added.
According to Hacohen, the majority of the girls refuse to file a complaint.
"It's not unique to these kinds of cases," she said. "In general, only about 10% of sexual assault victims file a complaint. In addition, there are those exceptional cases where girls distrust the police, which causes them to keep them away from the Police Investigation Unit."
The fact that these are religious girls, who insist on preserving their modesty, is also very significant. Such a girl might have a hard time even verbally repeating a harsh comment said to her.
It is not just young girls who find it difficult. In March 2006, Hacohen, also a religious woman, had to testify in front of an investigation committee regarding events which occurred during the Amona evacuation. Recalling the sexual comments made was very hard for her, it appears.
"Excuse my language," she said during the deliberation, "This isn't my way of speaking, but if I don't say these things you wouldn't be able to understand what I'm talking about. Comments like 'I will screw you', 'you're here for that', 'you're settlers, you're here to reproduce, so we'll make it so you wouldn't be able to give birth', 'we'll rape you all and enjoy it', and dozens of other examples," she quoted.
"At first I thought it's because of the ethical gap and the difference in language between soldiers and religious high school girls," said Hacohen on Sunday. "But after consulting with women who work for a sexual victims' hotline, they said it's clearly a case of sexual assault."
Lately it seems that the shame barrier, which makes it hard for the religious girls to complain, has been broken. A complaint was filed against Israeli Police on Sunday on behalf of 16-year-old H, a resident of west Binyamin.
This is the fourth suit filed recently by underage female settlers for sexual assault during the evacuations and demonstration in the West Bank. Last September, H was arrested during a demonstration near Jericho for attacking a policeman and disturbing him in fulfililng his duty. She was investigated at the police department in Ma'aleh Adumim.
According to the lawsuit, her arrest was extended by 24 hours by a police officer and afterwards the police requested to strip her naked and search her body. After H refused, claiming such a search was not legal, they let her be.
The following day, the prosecution claims, Nachson unit prison guards arrived to drive H to court, and a female warder forcefully searched her body, threatening to call male warders to help out if the girl refused. According to the lawsuit, the warder forcefully lifted H's shirt, who in turn objected and warned her it was a cause for prosecution.
In response the warder opened the cell door and another warder threatened to enter the cell and conduct the search himself. Due to the threats, H took off her cloths and stood there wearing only her bra and underwear. The female warder searched her body, including under the bra, and touched intimate parts of her body.
According to the lawsuit, when the girl remarked once again that the search was not legal, the warder responded by saying that if a lawsuit is filed – the State will pay.
"The girl's body search was illegal and intended solely to intimidate her from participating in demonstrations," said H's attorney, Yitzchak Bam.
The lawsuit also accused the police of unnecessary and illegal actions, such as handcuffing both her hands and legs when bringing her to court and prolonging her arrest for 24 hours. Now H is suing for NIS 100,000 (nearly $28,000): NIS 50,000 (nearly $14,000) for the search and threats, NIS 25,000 (nearly $7,000) for the night she spent behind bars and another NIS 25,000 for being transported while in handcuffs.
At this point, it should be noted that H and other settlers who complained of sexual harassment may have broken the law and their arrest was therefore justifiable. But this does not justify the severe ordeal they allegedly underwent at the hands of law enforcement agents after being arrested.
"Following almost every evacuation we receive complaints," said Orit Strock, a Hebron resident and Chairman of the Yesha Human Rights Organization. She differentiates between such attacks that occur during the evacuation and those that occur after it, during the period of detention, which are usually connected with strip searching.
"There is no reason to strip down a teen that came to protest the evacuation of a structure or entered closed-off IDF territory, but the police don't care about that," Strock said. "It's abuse, because we know it hurts our girls."
The same thing happened after the evacuation of Givat Haor in the beginning of 2008. The girls who were arrested and refused to identify themselves were strip searched in the Binyamin police headquarters. When they were being searched a policeman entered the room and saw them in their underwear.
"I've been working with victims for nearly 20 years now and these girls reacted as if they had just been raped," testified Debbie Gross, director of the Rape Crisis Center for Religious Women, who met with the girls immediately after the incident. "They have anxieties. It's hard for them to sleep and eat. They were seriously traumatized."
The girls in this case, as expected, voiced their objection to filing a lawsuit and the case was closed. In December of 2009, MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union) invited them to testify at the Committee on Status of Women in the Knesset.
"One of the policemen said to us, 'If you don't ID yourselves we will strip search you'," said A, who was 15 during the time of the events. "After that I followed them into the room. I asked for it to be locked, because I've heard of cases where policemen just came in. The female officers refused. They ordered me to take of my clothes, one item at a time. I was left with only my underwear. They felt me up in intimate places. It was humiliating. It felt as if they were doing it just to hurt me, a kind of punishment. If you refuse to ID yourself – we will do this to you."
"Why should they undergo a strip search? It doesn't help enforce the rule of law. It mostly humiliates the girls, whose connection to a serious criminal act is preposterous," said Committee Chairperson MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), who suggested the search be done by someone other that the police.
Following the Knesset visit, the girls decided to file a case for damages. But a legal precedent was already established in 2005, after the arrest of 17-year-old A in front of Rabbi Israel Weiss, then Chief Military Rabbi of the IDF.
"A policewoman took me to the bathroom at the police station," A said. "It was open so anyone could just walk in. She ordered me to strip. I said, 'Are you crazy? I'm arrested for protesting, not for drugs.' She said it's so I don't hurt myself and that I have to. We agreed I'd strip down to my underwear. She began to touch me, it was humiliating and hurtful."
Later on, A was taken to a holding facility at the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, where she was ordered to strip down completely. When she refused, claiming she had already undergone a body search, the policewomen threatened to call a Special Patrol Units' officer who would send over ten policemen to strip her.
"I had no idea at that point that they weren't allowed to act that way and that it was actually a rape threat. At one point she called the officer and I was sure that the Special Patrol Unit men were on their way. I took off all my clothes. It was the most humiliating moment of my life. I've never taken off my clothes in front of other people before, not even my sisters."
Upon her release, A filed a lawsuit at the magistrate's court, and when it was rejected she appealed to the district court. The court accepted her appeal and ruled in her favor, awarding her NIS 36,000 (nearly $10,000) compensation.
"We are talking about utter humiliation and a serious blow to the right to privacy," the judges wrote. "This isn't just a 'local' slip by a public employee, but a real problem."
As far as N from Hill 18 is concerned, the growing awareness of such harassments is not going to help. The identity of the policeman who touched her body remains unknown.
Official response: "N's complaint was accepted by the Police Investigation Unit and an investigation has begun," said a Justice Ministry spokesman on behalf of the Police Investigation Unit.
In regards to H, whose lawsuit was filed Sunday, the Prison Service spokesman said: "Once the suit is accepted, we will examine it and the Prison Service's position will be presented to the court."
The Yesha District Police issued a statement saying: "At no point did the policemen request to strip-search a minor as claimed. After examining the circumstances of her arrest and having made sure there was no alternative to her arrest, we decided to extend her arrest overnight in order to bring her before a judge."
When asked why no order was given to only allow policewomen to evacuate girls during the demonstrations, Yesha District Police responded: "Policewomen do participate in evacuations, but there was not enough manpower. Even during physical confrontations, police forces insist on following the protocol. Every complaint is examined privately."