To a journalist working in the West Bank, Mariam Barghouti, a 20 year-old university student and translator who was arrested last Friday in Nabi Saleh, is a familiar name. In spite of her age, Mariam is a polished resource. She’s known for her professionalism, sweetness and infectious smile—she makes me smile and almost seems to have bounce in her step. But as I type this young woman is locked in an Israeli jail cell, missing her exams, for her studies in English and Psychology. Mariam and journalist Abir Kopty were arrested last week while translating for a foreign journalist. Abir has been released. Five days later Mariam is still lingering in a military prison. Why?
Mariam’s problems started when she, Abir and three international media workers were driving out of Nabi Saleh, a Ramallah district village known for protests against the occupation that has become almost a tourist stop for visitors to the region. Go on a Friday, and you can bump into media from Russia, tour groups from Norway—and a handful of Israelis. When Mariam was departing Israeli soldiers stopped the car and she and Abir were forcefully pulled from the vehicle and arrested for no apparent reason. The three foreigners were also detained briefly on site, but never placed under arrest.
Abir’s, and other, testimonies confirm the arresting soldiers acted out of anger unprovoked by the women, taunting them, “I’m going to mess up your life.” Abir said, “It was obvious to me then that not only will [the arresting soldier] fabricate everything for his own purposes, but he knows he has the power to do so.”
Supporters of Mariam released the following statement on April 15, 2014:
On Friday, April 11th, 2014, 20-year-old Mariam Barghouti, a university student at Birzeit, was arrested by Israeli forces. She was brought to court on Sunday, April 13th where she was charged and her detention extended until Wednesday, April 16th.
Mariam was arrested while leaving the village of Nabi Saleh. Mariam, along with Abir Kopty (a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who was later released on bail), and three foreign journalists were detained by soldiers and searched. Mariam had been in Nabi Saleh accompanying some of the journalists on their assignments and translating for them. Soldiers on the scene fabricated charges against her and handed her over to the police who arrested her along with Abir. At her hearing yesterday Mariam was charged with stone-throwing and entering a closed military area; her detention has been extended until Wednesday. Mariam sobbed throughout the whole hearing and told her lawyer that the charges are simply lies.
Mariam is a student at Birzeit University where she is majoring in English Literature and Psychology. Mariam is also active in community work and organizing and received a two-month residency scholarship in the UK, part of a program supporting women.
Abir said that during the arrest incident on Friday, “one of the soldiers who detained us looked at me and with a big smile said, ‘I’m going to mess up your life.’ It was obvious to me then that not only will he fabricate everything for his own purposes, but he knows he has the power to do so.”
Mariam was supposed to be arraigned in military court at the beginning of the week. She was brought into the hearing room in shackles still in her clothes from Friday appearing distraught. But her court date was then postponed until Wednesday, and when charges were presented, to my surprise she was charged with stone-throwing, a serious matter because Mariam now faces a minimum of three-months in jail for a crime that by all accounts and logic she did not commit. Lest we forget, the arresting soldier admitted he would lie to make the young student and translator suffer. However, after today’s presentation by prosecutors, Mariam was not been let out on bail. The state attorneys may decide tomorrow to appeal of her release before judgment so she is still being held, which seems particularly cruel.
What is most worrisome in this surreal nightmare for Mariam, are the statistics. Remember this figure: 99.7%, it is the conviction rate for Palestinians in the Israeli military court system, which has jurisdiction on everything from speeding tickets to terrorism cases. Although Mariam is an American citizen, she is also a West Bank resident and therefore her rights as an American are not being honored. Instead she is being tried as a Palestinian under Israeli military code (different from the legal code applied to Israeli citizens). And even though her false arrest was documented and seen by many witnesses, with a 99.7% conviction rate and trials that last an average of five-minutes only, that’s an official figure reported by Palestinian human rights groups, it’s hard to imagine that a judge will be equipped with the resources to adjudicate her case. The head of the military court Col. Netanel Benishu said after taking his post last summer, the court is marred with a “system-wide and systematic” abuse to Palestinians in their right to seek a fair trial, even in conflict times.
Moreover Abir’s release from jail the same day as arrest demonstrates that under a normal criminal justice system, checks and balances would have kicked in (Abir is an Israeli citizen). I will assume it’s probable that had Mariam’s rights been upheld, she would have been released too.
Such an astonishing arrest, Mariam’s case has also brought the ire of the Associated Press’s diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee, who questioned State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki over why an American citizen, a translator on assignment was randomly detained. While the State Department was aware of Mariam’s detention they were not able to comment due to a gag from the Privacy Act Wavier. Here’s an excerpt of the transcript:
QUESTION: On Israel, two of them have to do with arrests made by Israeli authorities over the course of the past week or so. One involves an American woman, Mariam Barghouti. Do you know anything about that?
MS. PSAKI: Due to privacy considerations and no Privacy Act waiver –
QUESTION: Oh, great. This is going to be another – we’re going to go through the –
MS. PSAKI: – we’re unable to provide further or additional information, Matt.
For the moment, Mariam’s fate remains uncertain.