In ordinary trials, after a defendant has finished serving his or her sentence, one can safely assume that the legal drama is over. There is nothing ordinary, however, about the trial of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour.
Although she was released on September 20 from a five-month prison sentence, on top of two and a half years under house arrest imposed on her as “danger to the public” during the trial, she continues her legal battle against her conviction of incitement to violence and support for a terrorist organization. On December 25, the Nazareth District Court convened to consider the appeal filed by Tatour’s attorney Gaby Lasky.
The great human drama of imprisonment has already moved to other places. On the same day that the appeal was heard, Sheikh Sayah a-Turi, the leader of the struggle against the evacuation of the village of Al-Araqeeb in the Naqab (Negev), entered Ramleh Prison. Many of the activists who had accompanied Dareen to the numerous hearings of her trial were there to accompany him.
But Tatour’s trial continues to stir up the cultural circles in Israel and serve as a front line in the war between those who defend freedom of expression and the authorities who try to prevent any artistic expression of resistance to the occupation. At the latest act in this struggle, “Culture” Minister Miri Regev has prevented the display of Tatour’s poem “Resist My People“, that was at the center of the indictment against her, in an exhibition in Jerusalem called Barbarism, which deals with censorship.
Poetry and red lines
The trial’s protocol presents a lengthy monologue by defense attorney Gaby Lasky, who spared no effort to prove that the accusations against Tatour are unfounded and should be rejected, followed by a contradictory monologue by state attorney Avital Sharoni. But the drama that was played in the courtroom rolled out differently. The panel included three judges of the District Court, headed by Judge Ester Hellman. It seems that there was a division of labor between the judges, so that one of them, Judge Yifat Shitrit, studied the file in advance and led the discussion throughout the hearing. Already at the beginning, she clarified that the court intends to stick to the criterion of criminal law according to which “if there is doubt – there is no doubt.” As if to say that if Tatour’s words could be interpreted differently than what the indictment attributed to her, she should be acquitted.
Attorney Lasky tried to concentrate all her arguments on the importance of freedom of political and artistic expression, which are not only the rights of the individual but also the soul of democracy and vital to society as a whole. The judges tried to direct her in a different direction and requested her to define herself when a poem might cross the boundaries of the criminal law. After lengthy negotiations, Lasky declared that, according to her belief, and also according to the defense expert Professor Nissim Calderon, the state should not apply the criminal law to poetry. She admitted that the law itself does not provide such protection for poetry, but it sets definitions of criminal expression that include “direct call to violent action” or, in case of an indirect call, “real possibility” that a violent act might be realized as a result. She made clear that Tatour did not publish any call for violent action and the prosecution did not bring even a shred of evidence that her publications might have inspired any violent act.
Finally, Lasky mentioned that she knew of only one previous case in which a poet was accused in Israel of incitement following a poem he wrote. This was the case against the poet Shafiq Habib from Deir Hanna in the early 1990s, following his poems dedicated to “the stones’ children” from the first intifada. Habib was convicted in the Acre Magistrate’s Court but was later acquitted in the Haifa District Court.
Understanding the intention of the poet
The judges seemed to be trying to examine the meaning of the poem’s words, especially the line “Follow the caravan of martyrs,” which Judge Adi Bambiliya-Einstein, who convicted Tatour, interpreted as calling for suicide operations. Two of the justices, Helman and Shitrit, first demonstrated the prevailing prejudice among the Jewish public as if the word “shahid” could be interpreted as a “suicide bomber”. But here came the third judge, Sa’eb Dabour, who relied on his personal knowledge of the Arabic language and explained that the word shahid refers to people who died under various circumstances, including innocent victims of the conflict.
After settling the dispute over the meaning of the word shahid, the judges again discussed the context of the line within the poem. They recognized that all the martyrs mentioned in the poem, such as Hadil Al Hashlamoun and Ali Dawabsheh, were victims of the occupation and were not killed due to violent action on their part.
At a certain stage, apparently in the middle of the defense arguments, the judges requested to watch the video containing the poem, as submitted to the court as part of the evidence. The state-of-the-art video equipment that was prepared in advance did not work, and everyone took a long break until the technical staff fixed the problem. When we returned from the break and the video was finally played, the judges seemed to have changed their minds again. During the trial, the prosecution argued, and the judge repeated this in the ruling, that the video shows violent activity that casts on the meaning of the poem. The prosecution also emphasized the dramatic music accompanying the video. Now the District Court judges also expressed their opinion that the music increases the effect of the poem and the video.
Attorney Lasky insisted that the video presents a daily reality of a violent clash between the army and the population under the occupation, the same harsh reality that constitutes the background to the poem’s writing. The poet’s statement, Lasky claimed, should be sought in the words of the poem itself. The prosecutor repeated the claim that the video showed “stone throwing and Molotov cocktails” and Laski corrected her that there are no Molotov cocktails, and that the violence in the video is at the low threshold of what we regularly see in the news. At a certain stage, when the prosecutor and the judges repeatedly talked about the violence that the Palestinians were using in the video, Lasky couldn’t hold herself and recalled that while the Palestinian youths were throwing stones, the soldiers fired at them: “What is more violent?” she asked. After a long argument it seemed that the judges are ready to accept the possibility that the video is the background and does not necessarily constitute a statement by the poet.
Consent or decision
The judges hinted to both sides that they should better reach an agreement that the charge against the poem “Resist My People” would be canceled, but the poet’s conviction in the two other statements mentioned in the indictment, which are non-poetic statuses on Facebook, will remain in place. This would ostensibly erase the disgrace that was imposed on the State of Israel and its judicial system as someone who persecuted and imprisoned poets – but the poet herself, who was persecuted and imprisoned, will continue to bear the blame. The judges explained that this is also the poet’s interest – since she wants to continue writing poems. By stipulating that the poem did not exceed the criminal limit, it will remove or at least distance the whip that threatens the freedom of artistic expression.
The judges will wait for the parties’ response to the compromise proposal, and if this is not accepted, they would announce a later date for a decision on the appeal.
The unfairness of the proposed compromise is striking: One of the statuses of which Tatour was convicted is the inscription “I am the next Shahid” – published in protest against the murder of the boy Muhammad Abu Khdeir. In this context, her claim that the publication is a protest against the murder of innocent people is even more obvious.
Nevertheless, we went out with the feeling that if the indictment against the poem would be canceled it will constitute a certain victory for freedom of speech and the devoted struggle of Dareen Tatour and the many activists and artists who stood by her in the long struggle against the regime’s persecutions.