The Spanish aid worker Juana Ruiz Sánchez, 63, will spend Christmas behind bars. A court in Haifa (northern Israel) has ordered the review of the request for the release of the humanitarian worker, which was denied on the 7th by a prison committee. As reported this Friday by his team of lawyers, the court announced after the hearing held on Tuesday that the decision of the penitentiary committee was “unclear” and “raises questions” about its validity. Consequently, the claim for parole after serving one-third of the sentence imposed must be re-examined. Ruiz was detained eight months ago by the Army at her home near Bethlehem (West Bank), where she has lived with her Palestinian husband for more than three decades.
The penitentiary committee – made up of a judge, a social worker and a psychologist – agreed in Nazareth (northern Israel), by two votes to one (that of the magistrate), that Ruiz must remain in prison until mid-May and fully serve his sentence. On November 17, a military court in Ofer (West Bank) sentenced the Spanish aid worker to 13 months in prison, who had accepted a plea bargain in order to reduce her sentence. Ruiz’s defense considers that the committee acted against the usual practice in the Israeli justice system of cutting the final stretch of sentence in case of good behavior of the prisoner.
The Haifa district court observes in its resolution – according to a statement released by lawyer Avigdor Feldman, who leads the defense of Ruiz – that “the ideological motives attributed to the prisoner are not clear” and that they were used by the two members of the prison committee, who rejected early release. The court now requires the committee to detail the alleged “ideological background” and the reasons why it considered that there is a risk of flight of the Spanish humanitarian worker. In a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS, lawyer Feldman, a prestigious specialist in the legal defense of human rights in Israel, was optimistic about the possibility that Juana Ruiz could be released before the end of the year.
On the 2nd, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, telephoned his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid. “His case is very important for Spanish public opinion. No one here believes that she is a terrorist, “the head of Spanish diplomacy told the Israeli minister at the time. The Ofer military court sentenced the Spanish aid worker to 13 months in jail and a fine of 50,000 shekels (about 14,000 euros) for the crimes of “rendering services to an illegal organization” and for “trafficking in foreign exchange in the West Bank”, within the Palestinian health NGO I worked for.
Ruiz agreed to plead guilty to both charges, within the framework of an agreement with the Military Prosecutor’s Office that eliminated three other serious accusations for crimes related to terrorism, in order to see her sentence reduced and shorten a process that forced her to remain a long time between bars.
“Everything in this case is political,” Ruiz’s lawyer warned in his first statements after the sentence. “There has been an attempt to manipulate it to justify the outlawing of Palestinian human rights NGOs.”
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In more than eight months in detention, the Spanish aid worker has only been able to receive a few family visits in jail. Criminal proceedings under Israeli military jurisdiction can drag on for years. This is the case of the Palestinian engineer Mohamed Halabi, who has been behind bars for five years accused of diverting funds from an international NGO in Gaza in favor of Hamas and who is still awaiting trial.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.