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Monday, July 19, 1999 Published at 19:43 GMT 20:43 UK

World: Middle East

Israel looks at detention laws

Some Palestinians have spent years in detention without charge

Yossi Beilin, Israel's new justice minister and a leading Israeli dove, has announced plans to phase out the state's notorious "administrative detention" laws.

Middle East
The current system, which allows the authorities to hold detainees indefinitely without trial, have long been condemned by pressure groups as a serious violation of Palestinian human rights.

The announcement comes a day after the release of the state's longest-held administrative detainees, Usama Barham, who has been in custody since 1993.

[ image: Yossi Beilin has lead the campaign against administrative detention]
Yossi Beilin has lead the campaign against administrative detention
"People sit in jail for months, sometimes years - and in the case of Usama Barham it was six years - without being told what they are charged with," Mr Beilin told Israel army radio on Monday. "It should not continue anymore."

He said he wanted to increase judicial supervision over the process, but did not provide further details.

"Only in cases of real danger and when no other option is available should administrative detention be used," Mr Beilin said.

No charge, no trial

Mr Barham was released on Sunday after agreeing to post $5,000 bail and to report regularly to a local Israeli police station.

[ image: Usama Barham: Emotional family reunion after six years]
Usama Barham: Emotional family reunion after six years
He was reportedly arrested on suspicion of being a member of the Palestinian militant Islamic Jihad group, which he has consistently denied.

"Even today, I don't know what I'm accused of," he said on his release on Sunday.

"I would ask the wardens again and again: if you have something against me, interrogate me and put me on trial."

Human rights groups accuse Israel of routinely abusing the regulations to silence political opponents and to punish others whose charges would not stand up in court.

Bargaining chips

At least 5,000 Palestinians have been held in administrative detention over the years, the peak coming during the 1987-93 Palestinian Intifada or uprising.

After the Oslo peace accords, up to 300 detainees have been held at any one time. The number is now thought to have fallen to about 70 Palestinians.

There are also about 20 Lebanese detainees, held in the al-Khiam prison in occupied southern Lebanon.

These include two Shia spiritual leaders, kidnapped by Israeli forces from their homes in south Lebanon in 1989 and 1994, and held as bargaining chips for the return of an Israeli airman shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

[ image: Some prisoners at al-Khiam in Lebanon were kidnapped by Israel]
Some prisoners at al-Khiam in Lebanon were kidnapped by Israel
The regulations allowing Israel to hold detainees indefinitely without trial date back to a 51-year state of emergency inherited from the British authorities in Palestine in 1948.

He said new laws would need to be drawn up to replace the emergency regulations and the individual cases of Lebanese prisoners would be examined.

Mr Beilin indicated that his plans are most likely to affect the Lebanese detainees first.

The situation in the West Bank is more complicated, correspondents say, because that territory comes under Israeli military law and is not subject to civilian law, which Mr Beilin's ministry supervises.

Not all of the detainees have been of Arab origin. In 1996 five Jews were held under the same regulations. They have since been released.

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