Occupied East Jerusalem – The four recaptured Palestinian prisoners – who broke out of an Israeli prison last week – are likely to face additional prison time and harsh punitive measures, according to lawyers.
The four prisoners appeared separately on Saturday before the Israeli Magistrate Court in Nazareth, which decided to extend their detention until September 19 to “complete the investigation”, according to a statement from the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Commission of Detainees Affairs.
Israeli authorities announced the rearrest of Mahmoud Abdullah al-Ardah, 46, and Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadri, 49, on the southern outskirts of Nazareth late on Friday. Zakaria Zubeidi, 46 and Mohammad al-Ardah, 39, were arrested nearby early on Saturday, in the Palestinian village of Shibli-Umm al-Ghanam.
They were among six men – along with Ayham Nayef Kamanji, 35, and Munadel Infaat, 26, whose whereabouts remain unknown – who broke out of Israel’s Gilboa prison at dawn on September 6.
The prisoners had uncovered a point in their cell’s toilet that led to an underground cavity where they dug a tunnel that opened up a few metres beyond the prison wall.
Israeli forces launched an enormous manhunt to search for the six men, finding the first pair five days later.
At the court hearing on Saturday, according to the PA Commission, several initial charges were presented against the four: “Escape, aiding and abetting in an escape, conspiracy to commit an attack, and membership in a hostile organisation and providing services to it.”
Khaled Mahajneh, the lawyer for several of the prisoners on behalf of the Commission, said authorities refused to provide information about the “conspiring to commit an attack” allegation.
“I asked the interrogation officer in court what they’re basing this claim on, but we got no answers. They said it is a secret file. We have no idea where that claim came from, or what it has to do with the escape from prison,” he told Al Jazeera.
Trial proceedings could last at least a year, said Mahajneh. While an official indictment has not yet been presented, he said his team expects the prisoners could face an additional four to five years on their sentences based on the initial charges.
Before breaking out of the prison, four of the six prisoners had been serving life sentences, while two were being held in detention awaiting military trial. Those sentenced were arrested between 1996 and 2006 and had been convicted of carrying out attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets. Five of them are affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, while one is a senior member of the armed wing of Fatah, a Palestinian group that dominates the PA.
Under international law, a prisoner of war who escapes from prison “shall be liable only to a disciplinary punishment”, meaning that no additional years should be added to their initial sentence, even if it is a repeated attempt.
In previous incidents where Palestinian prisoners escaped from Israeli prisons and were rearrested, several faced punitive measures such as long periods in solitary confinement but did not receive longer sentences, according to lawyers.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs the besieged Gaza Strip, said in a televised statement it would place the six prisoners at the top of any future prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
The four prisoners are being held at the Jalama Interrogation Facility near Haifa and, according to their lawyers, have undergone interrogation by the Israeli intelligence services and the Lahav 443 unit of the police. The interrogation could last for up to 45 days, lawyers said, during which time they will remain at the Jalama facility.
The prisoners have been banned from accessing their lawyers under an order from the Israeli intelligence services effective until September 14 and likely to be renewed, according to Mahajneh. Due to the ban, the lawyers have not been able to speak to the prisoners and have little information about the nature of the interrogations and potential violations being carried out against the prisoners.
In similar high-profile cases that Israel has classified as security-related, detainees can be denied access to a lawyer for up to 21 days. The prisoners’ lawyers have submitted an appeal against the ban that will be heard in court on Monday.
Mahajneh said the information blackout and the lack of restrictions on interrogators is cause for worry. “I think the intelligence services will do everything – all that they have and haven’t done before – to obtain information from the prisoners.”
He said authorities are expected to be using “ugly tactics” including long interrogations that exceed 20 consecutive hours, sleep deprivation, providing them with insufficient, bad quality food, as well as physical assault and torture.
While the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the use of torture in 1999, interrogators – particularly the intelligence services – have continued to use violence against Palestinian detainees, which courts have retroactively sanctioned.
Zubaidi, one of the prisoners, appeared in court with severe bruising on his face. According to local media, Israeli forces beat him during his arrest, and he was transferred to a hospital early on Sunday for treatment.
People protest in support of the six Palestinians who escaped from Gilboa prison [Ammar Awad/Reuters]
Mahajneh said he expects Israeli prison authorities to place the re-arrested prisoners in solitary cells in the country’s southern prisons, where detention conditions are notoriously more difficult during the summer and winter seasons because of the lack of ventilation and heating.
Sahar Francis, a lawyer and director of the Ramallah-based Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, told Al Jazeera she expects the prisoners will be put in total solitary confinement, including a ban on family visits and restrictions on lawyer access.
Francis said Palestinian prisoners are usually allowed between three to four hours in the prison yard during the day but expects the prisoners will “only be allowed one hour a day in the yard, and they will be alone”.
“They won’t be allowed to mix with the other prisoners. They’ll be completely isolated from the world. They may get a visit from their lawyer or from a Red Cross representative, but that’s it,” said Francis.
She added the prisoners will have their legs shackled, and possibly their hands too, during their hour in the yard.
Khaled Zabarqa, a lawyer and human rights defender who represents Palestinian political prisoners, described solitary confinement as “the most difficult punishment that can be imposed on a prisoner”.
He told Al Jazeera he believes Israeli forces are likely to launch an arrest campaign in the coming weeks against individuals suspected of having aided the prisoners.
“They will take anyone who provided the prisoners with food, shelter, or any other help,” he said.