By Ghadanfar Kamanji, ILF Country Director, Palestine
Four years ago, *Ahmed, a 15-year-old boy from the Palestinian city of Jenin, was accused of murder. He faced up to 15 years of imprisonment with hard labor. I represented him in court.
In January 2015, on an errand to the market for his aunt, Ahmed spotted three of his friends. He stopped and they started joking around. Ahmed poked his buddy, *Yousef, with what he thought was the handle of his closed pocket knife, laughing. Yousef fell to the ground. They thought he was being dramatic. Teasing, the boys said, “Come on, get up!” Then they saw blood pooling on the ground around Yousef’s body.
Ahmed and the boys flagged down a car to get Yousef to the hospital. Ahmed helped lift his friend into the car and rode to the hospital with him, using a newspaper to try to stop the bleeding. When they arrived at the hospital, police on duty asked who had stabbed the boy. Ahmed spoke up. They took him to the police station and put him in a holding cell. A few hours later, Ahmed learned Yousef had died.
Interrogated by police without his parents or a lawyer present, overwhelmed by grief, and without fully understanding the charges against him, Ahmed confessed to killing his friend. That could have been it. A terrible accident, a confession to murder, then a 15-year sentence for a 15-year-old boy. Yet, people are far more than their worst action.
As defense lawyers, we can’t undo tragedies like this, but we can prevent more tragedy. We can give our clients a chance to do better. We can defend their rights and fight for their freedom to atone, heal, and be more than that terrible moment.
Children are incredibly vulnerable in the criminal justice system. They do not have the education or sometimes yet the mental capacity to fully understand what is happening to them. They are often arrested without parents or guardians present and taken into police custody under traumatic circumstances. If left without a lawyer, they are particularly susceptible to pressure from authorities.
When I took this case, Ahmed implored me to ask Yousef’s family to forgive him. I could tell this was a caring young kid who had made an awful mistake, and I was worried. Ahmed was a big, strong teen who had confessed to a terrible crime. As is common in juvenile cases, once a child is in contact with the law, people, including the courts, struggle to see them for what they are: children in need of help and support.
Ahmed had never been in trouble before, and his relationship with Yousef had been friendly. Based on his non-violent history and testimony from mentors, friends, family, and teachers, I argued there was no intent to kill. The judge agreed.
As a result of our defense, the judge reduced the charge from murder with intent to accidental death. That typically carries a five-year sentence, which the judge reduced to three. By the time the decision came, Ahmed had already spent two years in juvenile detention. The court credited this as time served and sent him to Dar al Amal -- the “House of Hope” -- a juvenile rehabilitation center.
After sentencing, I filed motions for his early release with the Ministry of Social Development and the General Attorney (chief prosecutor) based on his good behavior in detention. By then, the families of Ahmed and Yousef had also completed a formal reconciliation process. We were able to get Ahmed home.
Before all this happened, Ahmed had loved horseback riding. I encouraged him to reconnect with the sport, and get back in his community. Today, Ahmed is an equestrian coach, working with other young people to overcome their fears and enjoy the freedom and beauty of riding.
Ahmed would still be in prison today if he hadn’t had access to quality legal aid. And I wouldn’t have been prepared to defend and support him effectively without special training in child psychology, holistic representation, and positive youth development.
At the ILF, we do our best to keep kids out of the criminal justice system and connect them with the community support they need to heal, grow, and thrive. We work with teens and families in tough moments. We press judges and prosecutors to consider each case in context, and to treat young people with special care. In Palestine, children and youth are roughly half our clients; what happens to them will have a tremendous impact on our society for years to come. The cases we take aren’t simple or easy, but every motion matters, and so much is at stake.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.