Top prosecutor says police bypassing his office to probe supposed speech offenses

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

State Prosecutor Amit Aisman at the Israel Bar Association's annual conference in Tel Aviv, September 4, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
State Prosecutor Amit Aisman at the Israel Bar Association's annual conference in Tel Aviv, September 4, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

State Attorney Amit Aisman says prosecutors have recently encountered several incidents in which the police opened up criminal investigations into alleged incitement or other speech offenses without the necessary authorization from the State Attorney’s Office, or by deliberately circumventing the office’s directives.

Speaking at the Haifa Legal Conference at Haifa University, Aisman warns that such behavior is liable to harm freedom of speech in the country and says the State Attorney’s Office is examining ways in which such abuses can be curtailed.

According to the state attorney, in some cases the police leveled allegations of specific crimes against suspects that allowed the force to avoid the need to obtain the State Attorney Office’s authorization for crimes related to speech offenses.

On other occasions, the police initially asked for authorization to investigate suspected speech offenses but when they were denied permission to do so, they began probing suspects for other supposed offensives such as disturbing the public peace, suspected treason or allegations of making threats which had no connection to the actual comments the police cited. Unlike with incitement, police do not need prosecutors’ permission to probe such offenses.

“It is important to point out that these actions were carried out not only in violation of the directives of the State Attorney’s Office but also in violation of the [police’s] Investigations and Intelligence Department,” insists Aisman.

He says that as a result, the State Attorney’s Office is now looking into amending its directive on speech offenses to address the misuse of the criminal code in this way.

Aisman said efforts to obviate the need for the State Attorney Office’s approval for investigations into alleged speech offenses “will increase, in my understanding, the danger of harm to freedom of speech in the State of Israel.”

He adds: “Harming freedom of speech does harm to one of the most important values for the public interest. These are difficult and complex days for us all… But precisely in these days there is great importance for us all to preserve the public interest. At the end of the day, a democratic, orderly country which respects the dignity and rights and freedom of all its citizens is in the interest of us all.”

Civil rights groups have repeatedly complained of “political persecution” by the police against Arab citizens of Israel, in particular since the October 7 atrocities by Hamas and subsequent outbreak of war.

In April, the Adalah organization which works to protect civil rights of Arab Israelis and Palestinians under Israeli control, wrote to the attorney general and state attorney urging them to halt what it described as the police’s abuse of the criminal code “as a means of political persecution and suppressing freedom of expression,” and specifically cited the police’s use of the “conduct liable to disturb the public peace” clause of the criminal code in opening investigations and arresting Arab citizens.

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