Two years after the launch of a program to expunge the criminal records of Israelis who came from Ethiopia, only 23 have been pardoned, out of 115 applications that were submitted to the Ministry of Justice.
According to figures released this week by the ministry’s unit that deals with pardons, eight other applications are still under review, waiting for a decision. The Ministry of Justice and organizations helping people from Ethiopia say that the number of applications is lower than expected, describing the plan as a failure.
“I walk around with a sense of frustration over this plan, since with all the goodwill, it hasn’t really been a success,” attorney Nohi Politis, the head of the pardon-reviewing unit, told Haaretz.
In November 2018, the Justice Ministry and President Reuven Rivlin announced the plan, which allowed for the expunging of criminal records of Israelis who immigrated from Ethiopia and were convicted of creating a public disturbance but not sentenced to prison terms. The program came about following a report by a panel, headed by attorney Emmy Palmor, that investigated racism against the community.
The committee found that there was institutional discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis, with excessive policing leading to the opening of a large number of police files against them, far higher than their proportion in the population. According to the Association of Ethiopian Jews, there were 151,000 Israelis originating in Ethiopia in 2018, making up 1.6 percent of the population. Despite this, in 2017, 12 percent of the cases involving assaults against policemen were opened against Ethiopian Israelis.
The low rate of response to this initiative stems in part from the need to register the criminal file before asking for a pardon, a step that deters many people, since it requires going to a police station. According to the clinic for multiculturalism and diversity at Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law, 17 people who had approached the clinic did not register their criminal offense.
“They recoil from the police – many people don’t proceed with the pardon request for that reason. They don’t trust the system,” explains attorney Nasreen Alian from the clinic. According to Shlomit Bukaya, director of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, the state must take the initiative to grant these pardons. “Don’t wait for these youths to go to the police to ask to be registered – get the data and ask them to apply for the pardon. You can’t truly change things without taking active steps,” she says.
The Justice Ministry’s Politis says she understands the unease over approaching the police, but added that this obstacle can be removed. “A lawyer with a power of attorney can deal with the criminal registry,” she notes. “I can understand the wish to review all the files and to grant a sweeping pardon, but one must realize that a pardon is always given individually, it’s not a technical act.”
NGOs working with Ethiopian Israelis say the plan should be expanded to include people with other registered violations. “I’ve been approached by dozens of people, but only a handful met the conditions of this initiative and received a pardon,” says attorney Alian. “The plan’s criteria can be deceiving. When someone comes to court for interference with a police officer, he usually has additional violent acts or property violations behind him as well. Many of these people cannot join the IDF because of these violations.”
Alian adds that one of the major problems facing applicants is not the files that ended with convictions, but the ones still pending. “In order to expunge these ones, which are not included in the initiative, one needs a private lawyer, which costs thousands of shekels.” She says the lack of response to the plan stems from mistrust in law enforcement agencies, something that cannot be resolved with an isolated initiative. “This mistrust includes a lack of confidence that these applications will be successful,” she explains.
There are successes, however, 23 of them so far. D., who is 25, was convicted in 2012 in a juvenile court for assaulting and wounding another person. The court ordered him to sign a commitment to desist from such acts, fined him and placed him in a closed facility for 14 months. D. subsequently attended a pre-army program and served in the Nahal Brigade, after starting the army in a combat-supporting role, to which he was restricted based on his criminal record. After his military service, he volunteered at a center for youths at risk. He is now a security guard. His application for a pardon was granted, as part of the initiative.
“Expunging his record will give him a real opportunity to begin a new life,” wrote attorney Nasser Odeh, who represented him on behalf of the Hebrew University clinic. In another instance, a person convicted of assisting an assault on policemen had his criminal record expunged. He later served in the army in a combat role and graduated from university with no further criminal record. Before the record was expunged, he found it difficult to find jobs.