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Behind the Headlines: Asylum Seekers Sit in Israeli Prison, with No Nation Willing to Claim Them

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When Ahmad left Baghdad more than six years ago, he says he expected freedom from an oppressive Iraqi regime. Instead, he found imprisonment for more than five years in an Israeli jail.

Zuheir says when he left Tehran more than four years ago, all he wanted was to escape from Iran’s morality police. He, too, awaits an unknown fate in an Israeli prison.

But why Ahmad and Zuheir — whose names have been changed for this article – – are in Israel and what their intentions are remain unknown.

Are they really political refugees seeking shelter from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or from the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran? Or are they spies who were unfortunate enough to be caught? This questions are part of a legal controversy that now lies before Israel’s High Court of Justice.

Six Iraqis, three Syrians and two Iranians have recently appealed to Israel’s highest legal authority, demanding that they be freed from jail until a country agrees to accept them as political refugees.

Zuheir, a bachelor who has a degree in construction engineering, wanted a freer society than the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“He could not walk in the street with bare shoulders,” explained Edna Someh- Gideoni, chairwoman of the an Iranian women’s advocacy group in Israel, who has become a foster mother to Zuheir and his friends. “He felt that he could not initiate contacts with women. He felt in prison.”

Zuheir traveled to Syria from Iran in 1994, he says, spending spent six months in Damascus before deciding to try his luck in Israel. He managed to cross the border in the Golan Heights and turned himself in to the border police, believing that he would be treated like a political refugee. Instead, the authorities put him in jail.

So far, no country wants to claim Zuheir and the other prisoners. Although they are prisoners in Israel, they’ve never been tried or convicted of any crime.

Security forces suspected the Iraqi prisoners of espionage, but never pressed charges because of insufficient evidence. The Iraqis insist that they are innocent people who came to Israel in search of opportunities denied them in their home country.

Lawyer Yochi Gnessin, arguing on behalf of the state, said the fact that they had left Iraq carrying passports and visas indicated that they were not political refugees. He said they worked for a while in Jordan and then infiltrated to Israel.

“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recognized them as political refugees already in 1994,” said Mickey Bavli, representative of the U.N. commissioner in Israel. “According to international law, the host country is obliged to grant them certain privileges, such as work permits, health services and dwelling rights.”

The problem is that the prisoners came to Israel from enemy countries — and Israel, therefore, did not treat them like political refugees.

The solution now sought is to find a third country that will agree to absorb the prisoners.

“No country is willing to accept prisoners,” said lawyer Zvi Rish, who represents the Iraqi prisoners. “They need to be released before the host country will take them, and Israel will not release them before a host country commits itself to take them.”

And last week, when they showed up at the High Court of Justice, once again asking to be released, they were told that an invitation from an unidentified “third country” was imminent.

The prisoners looked desperate.

“Every time we come to court, there is a glimpse of hope, and then we go back to jail, waiting for the next court session,” Ahmad told JTA as he was waiting for the judges to enter the court hall. “We are like terminal patients, asking for a mercy-killing. We suffer for no reason.”

One new ray of hope is the appointment of Yossi Beilin as Israel’s minister of justice. Beilin has already spoken out against the administrative detention of prisoners without trial.

A year and a half ago, Canada was ready to absorb the six Iraqis. However the country reversed its original decision to accept them after reports of the arrangement appeared in the Canadian media.

The prisoners are eager to get out of jail, but if they were to be deported to an Arab country, they would rather stay at the Sharon Prison.

“No one in the Arab countries would accept us as simple people,” Ahmad said. “They will suspect that we had collaborated with the General Security Service and the Mossad.”

Herut Lapid, who lives at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar in the Galilee and who is known for his volunteer work in rehabilitating ex-convicts, has offered to absorb the prisoners in kibbutzim until a host country is found.

Israeli entertainer Dudu Topaz has also offered to help.

“I once visited them in jail and asked them why they had chosen Israel out of all countries for political asylum,” Topaz aid. “Why, if I were to seek shelter from the income tax authorities, I would not do so in Iraq. They told me: `We came to Israel because we believed that you are good people, that you have a kind heart.’ That’s why I am working on their behalf.”

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