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Finally free, after 8 months of false arrest

Cumulative failings of the Israeli Ministry of Interior kept Semere in detention for eight months and four years without a visa. Thanks to the Hotline’s intervention, Semere is now free, but frustrated that his basic rights and liberty were deprived for such a long time for no reason.

Semere Tesfemarian, an Eritrean asylum-seeker, crossed the Israeli-Egyptian border in early April 2010 and the Immigration Authority at the Ministry of Interior issued him the visa other Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers receive in Israel – the conditional release visa. This visa grants its holders only the right to remain in Israel. In late April 2010, the Immigration Authority decided that Semere is a citizen of Ethiopia and revoked his stay permit, as citizens of Ethiopia can be deported to their homeland, unlike Eritreans. Semere turned to the Ministry of Interior offices in Petah Tikva, Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak to prove that he’s a citizen of Eritrean and hence entitled to a visa. Semere presented documents to the Ministry of Interior proving that he and his parents are Eritreans, but he was turned away one time after the other. No one wanted to hear what he had to say.

In April 2014, Semere tried once again to prove that he’s an Eritrean and turned to the Tel Aviv Immigration Authority office. There he was told to report to the Immigration Authority office in Lod. In Lod he was informed that he should go to the Authority’s office at the Ben Gurion Airport. Semere rushed to the airport, in the hope that maybe there he will finally undergo an interview to ascertain his nationality. Instead, Semere was arrested there for staying in Israel without a visa.

After two months of detention, during which Semere was pressured to agree to leave to Ethiopia, Semere was brought before a judge at the Administrative Detention Review Tribunal in Saharonim prison. Semere declared once again that he’s an Eritrean who was mistakenly identified by the Ministry of Interior as an Ethiopian. The judge ordered the Immigration Authority to interview Semere to determine his nationality. In the interview, Semere recounts, he once again produced the documents he brought to the Immigration Authority on numerous occasions. The Immigration Authority who conducted the interview accusingly asked Semere “where were these documents all along?” and Semere replied: “you had them! I showed them again and again!”. After two months of imprisonment, the judge ordered Semere’s release because the Immigration Authority determined that Semere is indeed an Eritrean, as he had claimed all along. Semere was told that upon his release the next day at 14:00, he would have to travel to the Immigration Authority office in Tel Aviv to obtain a visa. Instead, at 06:00 in the morning, Immigration Authority clerks informed Semere that he must relocate to Holot, the ‘open’ detention facility across the road from Saharonim prison. “Over there is the place for you,” he was told.

It turns out that to prevent Semere’s release, the Immigration Authority rushed to issue Semere a summon for detention in Holot under the Anti-Infiltration Law. Under this law, asylum-seekers can be jailed for 20 months without trial in the facility. The summon was issued without a proper hearing or reasoning, contrary to Israeli law. Semere refused to leave Saharonim to Holot and demanded to be released. “I was jailed for no reason,” he explained, “because of the Ministry of Interior’s mistake.” A judge from the Administrative Tribunal convinced Semere to move to Holot because there, according to the judge, Semere will be able to turn to the Immigration Authority office in the facility and ask to be released. Semere decided to move to Holot and immediately went to the Immigration Authority there to explain that he was unjustly detained, due to an error of the Ministry of Interior. A Ministry of Interior clerk in Holot, Shishai, explained that he’s not going to release Semere and that the judge “just tricked you. He told you everything so you leave [Saharonim]. This is the place for you here.”

The refusal of the Immigration Authority to release Semere contradicts the current criteria for summoning asylum-seekers to Holot. Semere is not supposed to be jailed there because he’s an Eritrean citizen who entered Israel after May 31, 2009 and only Eritreans who crossed into Israel before this date can be jailed in Holot. After four months in Holot, Semere turned to the Hotline and we addressed the Immigration Authority, demanding that Semere be immediately released, as he does not meet the criteria for detention in Holot. Our letter, like most of our appeals to the Ministry of Interior in recent months, was ignored. A reminder sent in September 2014 and a new appeal on Semere’s behalf in November 2014 also went unanswered. The Hotline’s activist, Cora Neiman, did not give up and contacted the Immigration Authority once again in January 2015. Only following this appeal, the Ministry of Interior agreed to release Semere, after he had spent over eight months of false arrest due to cumulative lapses of the Immigration Authority.

Semere is finally free now and for the first time since April 2010, has a visa that unofficially allows him to work, but it’s hard for him to overcome the bitterness stemming from the injustice done to him. “I didn’t to anything. I didn’t steal. I’m not a criminal. I lived for four years without a visa due to their error. I didn’t have a job because I didn’t have a visa. I went to them again and again, nothing helped. After that I spent eight months in prison. For no reason, just because of a mistake.”