Russian Compound: Symbolic Jails in Holy City


Within what is called the Russian Compound, in the heart of Jerusalem, are two jails that symbolize the struggle for this ancient land.

One held Jewish guerrillas who fought British rule in the Palestine of the 1940s. It is a museum now, with a plaque dedicated to "the heroes who fought against foreign rule."

The other, 300 yards across the compound, remains a jail, mainly for Palestinians fighting Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has no plaques, just prisoners' tales of beatings, torture and overcrowding.

In the 1860s, the Russian Orthodox Church built the two yellow brick buildings as part of a complex of hostels and a green-domed church for pilgrims to the Holy Land.

On a recent day, dozens of Palestinian families crowded outside the jail, a block-long, one-story building topped by rolls of barbed wire. The Arabs call it Moskobiyeh, or Muscovite.

An officer shouted the names of families who would be allowed to visit prisoners--four families at a time, 15 minutes per visit.

Many waited for hours, some in vain. Any who asked questions were pushed aside by officers.

Sayra al Hamoni, a gaunt, 50-year-old woman from the Silwan district of Jerusalem, said she had come to see her 17-year-old son, Bader, who was picked up two months ago.

The mother, her hair covered by the white scarf of observant Muslim women, said Bader confessed to throwing stones at police after being beaten for 19 days. His nose was broken and he was often unconscious, said Hamoni, who has eight other children.

"I brought him new clothes one day and they gave me the old ones; they were all bloody," she said, wiping away tears. "I get sick each time I see him."

Betselem, an Israeli human rights group, issued a report recently that said interrogators beat prisoners in the jail to extract confessions. It said the report was based on affidavits from Palestinians aged 18 and younger.

"Almost all the minors . . . testified that they had been beaten--generally very severely: slapping, punching, kicking, hair pulling, beating with clubs or with iron rods, pushing into walls and onto floors," according to the report.

It said some prisoners who were 16 or older told of interrogations by the Shin Bet security service after being locked in one of three special cells.

Prisoners have given each of the cells a name: the "closet," 3 feet wide and the height of a man; the "grave," a box in the ground covered by an iron door, and the "lockup," a cubicle less than 5 feet square with a toilet inside.

Najib, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Dheishe, a West Bank refugee camp, told a reporter he spent three months in the Moskobiyeh, including several days in the "lockup."

"It was very dark; I was forced to sit in the lockup with my hands tied behind my back," said Najib, who is tall and thin. He said he refused to confess to charges that he was recruiting for a radical PLO faction.

Police spokesman Uzi Sandori denied the existence of the three solitary-confinement cells. The Shin Bet has no spokesman to question about its role in the jail.

When asked about reports of beatings, Sandori cited a police response to the Betselem report that was published with it in June.

Superintendent Elinoar Mazuz said in it that all complaints of police brutality were being investigated. She said police had not finished investigating six of the eight alleged beatings of minors Betselem cited and that files of the other two cases had been given to the state prosecutor.

Sandori would not let the reporter see any of the jail's 22 cells. He said only humanitarian groups are allowed to visit.

Philip Veerman, a childrens' rights activist who toured the youth wing in March, said it was seriously overcrowded.

Eighty-three youngsters were held in four cells with 34 beds, Veerman said, and in one of the cells, 39 minors shared 12 beds and one toilet. Two Israelis were held separately in one cell, he said.

"I almost fainted from the terrible smell," said Veerman, who represents Defense for Children International. "The air is stuffy and it is difficult to breathe. In the night, mattresses are spread out, but there is still not enough room."

In her response to the Betselem report, Mazuz acknowledged "extreme overcrowding" and blamed it on the increased number of prisoners since the Palestinian uprising began in December, 1987. She said the building was being renovated to create more space.

Jews call the former jail across the compound Bevingrad, for Ernest Bevin, Britain's anti-Zionist foreign minister of the late 1940s.

As a museum, it is named "The Shrine to Heroism." Schoolchildren visit it on tours and stare at the pictures of Jews executed by the British before Israel was founded in 1948.

Like the Moskobiyeh, the British jail originally was a hostel for Christian pilgrims. Its 10 solitary-confinement cells are still there and the gallows has been preserved, along with a Death Row cell where two condemned Jewish guerrillas committed suicide.

On April 21, 1947, Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani embraced and ignited an explosives-filled orange pressed to their hearts. They died two hours before their scheduled hanging.

Another famous prisoner was Yisrael Eldad, who was co-leader with Yitzhak Shamir, now the prime minister, of the Stern Gang guerrilla group.

Eldad, 80, said in a telephone interview from his home in Jerusalem that he spent six months in Bevingrad in 1944 and was not mistreated.

"Lots of Lehi people were there," he said, using the Hebrew name for the Stern Gang. "I was not even investigated. I was just sitting in the cell with my friends."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World