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Police Criticized in Arrest of Illegal Delivering Tots to School
At 7:30 A.M. on April 8, members of the Immigration Police arrested Ebenezer Saba, a citizen of Ghana, as he parked his commercial vehicle opposite the Tel Aviv kindergarten to which he ferries the children of foreign workers every day. On that much, everyone involved in the story agrees.
According to Saba, he was driving eight children that day - six of them aged two to four, and two older ones. He parked his car, removed the two oldest and was starting to remove the younger ones when the police arrived and asked to see his papers. He gave them a student ID from the days when he studied food engineering at the Technion. The policemen asked him to accompany them to their car while they checked the document.
Saba says he asked them to give him a moment to take the children into the kindergarten. "But they told me to come with them, as that would also take a minute. I walked to the car and kept looking back. I saw the children starting to cry. I asked the policeman, `What about the children?' But he answered me, `Come on, come on!'"
Soon afterward, the policemen told him that he was under arrest, bundled him into their car and left.
The kindergarten teacher, Avigail Safo, relates that three children had already arrived that day when a woman knocked on the door and told her to look outside - where she saw Saba's youngsters running around among the honking cars. Safo said that she had no choice but to leave the first three children alone while she ran to collect the others. Fortunately, none of them was hurt or lost.
The Immigration Police have a different version. They say that the policemen who arrested Saba checked his car and found it empty. The policemen also denied that Saba told them there were children inside.
Saba was released not long after he was arrested, as his 12-year-old daughter was born in Israel, meaning that he might be covered by a proposal to grant legal status to children of foreign workers born in Israel and their parents. The Hotline for Migrant Workers then filed a complaint with the Justice Ministry's Police Investigations Unit, arguing that the arresting police had violated Article 361 of the Penal Code, which forbids leaving a child under age six without supervision. Someone who breaks this law can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
But the unit closed the case, saying that it revolved around "the professional functioning of policemen and the judgment they exercised while making an arrest," and thus would at most constitute a disciplinary offense. It therefore transferred the complaint to the Immigration Police's ombudsman, whose office found no evidence to support the accusation - partly, it said, because the center, despite repeated requests, declined to pass on the names of the witnesses. The ombudsman thus concluded that the policemen behaved "unexceptionably, and in accordance with the Immigration Administration's policy of not leaving small, helpless children unsupervised, even at the price of releasing a detainee."
The Hotline responded that it received only one request for the witnesses' phone numbers, and declined to transfer them because it is appealing the Police Investigations Unit's decision. The appeal was submitted to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz this week.
In the appeal, Attorney Nomi Levenkron argued that the unit's decision does not accord with the language of the law, the facts or decisions in similar cases: For instance, a criminal investigation is now underway against a kindergarten teacher who left a child locked in her kindergarten for a few hours.
"It's hard to escape the feeling that a decision to indict was hampered by the fact that on one side of the case are policemen, who are supposed to uphold the law, and on the other side are children of foreign workers, who are here illegally," she wrote.
Levenkron added that this is not the first time that the unit has ignored the Hotline's complaints against the Immigration Police. The center has filed numerous complaints about police brutality over the years, she wrote, but only rarely have the alleged perpetrators been prosecuted.