By Aziza Nofal
On February 22, 2021, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh stated that the West Bank security apparatus do not detain people for freely expressing their opinion.
The truth, however, was far from that; in the same month, the Independent Commission for Human Rights recorded nine complaints related to political arrests made by the security services in the West bank whose head is the Prime Minister himself as he is also Minister of Interior.
Issa Ahmad is a young man who is known as ‘Abu-Antar’. He claims that his first ‘political’ detention took place in 2018, when he was tortured for nineteen days, and was subjected to what is known as ‘strappado’ or reverse hanging, which keep the detainees standing or sitting in painful positions for a long time while their hands are tied. ‘Abu-Antar’ endured this for hours at the headquarters of the Palestinian Security Services in Al-Junaid prison.
Two days later, twenty-six-year-old ‘Abu-Antar’ was transferred to solitary confinement that had no toilet. The cell was very cold, and he did not have a mattress or covers. He says, “I put my head on the water bottle using it as a pillow, and I had to urinate and defecate in an empty bottle.” After one night in the prison, he was returned to solitary confinement for four days where he was not allowed to communicate with anyone.
This investigation documents 250 detention cases, and ‘Abu-Antar’ case is similar to at least 61% of those cases. “They would put a black bag on my head and cuff my hands to the back and lift me up. They would only release my hands once they turned blue. This ‘strappado’ or reverse hanging mechanism would be repeated and would get more painful every time.” ‘Abu Antar’ says.
This treatment lasted eight days, mostly spent in brief interrogation sessions, torture and isolation. He was not brought before the Prosecution within 24 hours of arrest as stated in Article (107) of the Code of Criminal Procedures.
The Nablus-born young man was allowed at last to contact his family and hire a lawyer who attended the next interrogation session alongside him. The lawyer submitted release requests on his behalf, one of which was approved after nineteen days of detention.
- Issa Ahmad is twenty-six years old, originally from Nablus, and holds a degree in psychology.
The first arrest:
- The Palestinian Security Services arrested him in 2018 because of his political beliefs.
- He was summoned for an interview then got arrested without an arrest warrant.
- During his detention, his phone was confiscated, and he only got it back six months later.
- He was not brought before the Prosecution within 24 hours as specified by the law.
- He was subjected to psychological and physical torture and he was beaten and hung in reverse position while his head was covered with a black bag.
- He was kept in solitary confinement and was not allowed to change his clothes or have any sanitary access.
- After eight days of detention, he was allowed to communicate with his family and relatives.
- He had spent a total of nineteen consecutive days in detention during which time he was subjected to short interrogation sessions.
The second arrest:
- The Palestinian Security Services arrested him ‘Abu Antar’ in 2020 for abusing the freedom of publication and expression laws.
- He was arrested while travelling on public transport without showing him an arrest warrant.
- He was subjected to psychological torture and harsh treatment.
- Threats to tarnish his reputation were levelled at him.
- He was not allowed to communicate with his family when he was first detained.
- He had to go on a four-day hunger strike so he is allowed to hire a lawyer and to communicate with his family.
- Once a lawyer was appointed, he was not allowed to communicate with him.
- He was detained for thirteen days on charges of defamation levelled against the Palestinnian authority before he was released by a judicial decision.
- His release was delayed for hours because the Preventive Security Agency tried to arrest him upon his release by the Intelligence Service.
Abu-Antar’s case is one of more than 2,600 arrests documented in the West Bank between 2015 and mid-2021. The investigation is based on the number of complaints filed with the Independent Commission by detainees or their families. This means that the actual number of cases may be higher.
The investigation analyzed 250 arrest cases dating between January 2018 and June 2021. The examination is based on data from ‘Al-Haqq Foundation’, and a questionnaires and interviews conducted with a number of former detainees. Not a single case went without one or more instant of violation of procedures related to arrest, detention and fair trial guaranteed by the Palestinian Criminal Procedures Law, and the Palestinian Basic Law of 2003.
Arbitrary detention is the act of “depriving people of their personal freedom in violation of the letter and spirit of Palestinian and international laws.”
Punishing Political Opponents
In 2018, 26% of the 250 documented arrest cases were politically motivated. This was the same year in which marches in the West Bank took place in protest of sanctions imposed on Gaza by the Palestinian Authority. Abu-Antar was among those arrested that year for political reasons, but he was surprised by the charges pressed against him in court, “I was surprised by the extension of my detention on a charge that was not mentioned and which I was not asked about during the interrogation. It was related to the possession of an unlicensed weapon: That was a shock to me.”
2019 saw the highest increase in the politically motivated arrests when 85 such cases were recorded. According to human rights activist Sahar Francis, these arrests coincided with protests against the new Social Security Law introduced, and the preparations for student council elections at West Bank universities.
In 2020, Abu-Antar was arrested again due to a social media post in which he criticized the Palestinian Authority. His arrest was one of 62 arrests recorded during that year when a state of emergency was declared in March to help fight Covid-19 pandemic and the protests that took place in support of people with disabilities. The arrests pattern continued in 2021 to silence protests made against corruption, and against the preparations made to hold new elections and later their cancelation. 27 arrests were recorded until the end of June of that year.
Sahar Francis, the director of ‘Addameer for Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association’ says that issuing the Cybercrime Law No. (10) of 2018 and using it in apprehending critics of the PA led to 41 arrests out of 250 cases recorded on the ground of abuse of the freedom of expression rights and publication.
Abu-Antar’s second detention experience was different as he claims to have been ‘kidnapped’ as no arrest warrant has been issued to apprehend him for claims that he had abused the freedom of publication and expression rights, and he was charged with defamation against the Palestinian Authority. He said that a group of armed men in civilian clothes intercepted a public transportation vehicle he was travelling in, and arrested him without showing any identification cards. “Intelligence” (services) was the only word they used.
He was transferred to the intelligence services headquarters and then to Al-Junaid prison in Nablus where he was interrogated for thirteen days. He was not allowed to communicate with his family or with his lawyer, which made him go on a hunger strike until he was allowed to make his first call.
Later, Abu-Antar had to revert to a second hunger strike because of the delays in allowing him access to a lawyer. He says, “After two days of hunger strike, they transferred me to solitary confinement, and I refused to break the strike until I was allowed to use the phone.”
After thirteen days, Abu-Antar obtained a release order, but he was surprised by a request from the Preventive Security Agency requesting his transfer to their headquarters for further investigation. He was only released after a family acquaintance intervention.
Release Orders Quashed by Security Services
In December 2019, B. A. from Ramallah was arrested by the intelligence services for political reasons. After days of his arrest during which he was tortured, B. A. obtained a court order to be released on bail.
His father paid the bail and was surprised when the agency refused to release him. This happened a second and a third time, despite the fact that the father had paid for the bail each time. After 111 days, the judge decided to release him on bail as well, and this time he was actually released.
Fifty-seven cases out of the 250 we documented entailed delayed releases, and B. A.’s case was the longest. The delay in implementing the decision by the security services ranged between hours, as was the case in sixteen arrests cases, and a full day, as was the case for twelve detainees.
The second longest delay in release lasted 57 days, which was the case of the detainee Mohammad Khalid Melhim from the Jenin Governorate. Melhim was arrested by the Military Intelligence in 2019 and was denied release three times despite the court rulings.
Out of the 186 detainees whose personal belongings were confiscated upon arrest, 83 detainees recovered them immediately after their release. While others had to wait months and in some cases belongings were never retrieved.
61% of Detainees Have Been Tortured
Saleh Mohammad Zahran from the town of Deir Abu Mish’al near Ramallah lived through months of torture in the prisons of the Palestinian Authority. He says, “After 48 hours of continuous torture, I lost vision and the ability to distinguish sounds. The smell of blood was unbearable.” At the beginning of 2021, he was unable to bear the pain of torture at the hands of the Palestinian police.
Zahran was arrested while at a public hospital in Ramallah, the declared charge was “incitement against the security services and loitering in a place that is off limits.” The interrogation did not address these charges, however; he says, “During the investigation, I discovered that my political file and the arrest decision had been ready for a while, and they only needed an excuse to arrest me.”
Zahran’s hands and feet remained tied over the course of 48 hours and he was forbidden from sitting straight. An interrogator would strike his head and would hit him again if he raised it. Then, another person would hit him in the stomach. If he moved backwards, they would hit him on the back.
Additionally, a torrent of insults was directed towards him whenever he tried to speak, and he would be hit in the face after every word. They also threatened to transfer him to Jericho where he would be tortured further. He says, “I was not allowed to contact a lawyer or my family to reassure them that I was alive.”
Zahran was not the only person who was tortured; 61% of the 250 cases documented in this investigation experienced torture, and this violates Palestinian laws and international conventions to which Palestine has acceded.
The security services did not comment on the findings, and Major General Talal Dweikat, the spokesman for the Palestinian security service did not give reasons why he refrained from responding. Our request for a response was also rejected by the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior Dr. Ghassan Nimir who used the excuse that “interrogation sessions follow a specific process.”
Violations of Palestinian Laws and International Conventions
Torture violates Palestinian laws, and the most important of these is the amended Basic Law, or the Constitution. Article (13) stipulates that no one may be subjected to coercion or torture; those accused or incarcerated for any reason shall be treated appropriately.
Likewise, Article (32) states, “Every attack on personal freedoms, on the sanctity of the individual’s private life, or other rights and public freedoms guaranteed by the Basic Law or the law is a crime, and any criminal or civil lawsuits arising from such crimes shall not be dropped, neither will their statute of limitations expire, and the National Authority shall guarantee full compensation to the person who has been harmed.”
Torture also violates international conventions: In December 2017, Palestine became a signatory to the protocol issued by the Committee Against Torture. Articles (2) and (16) commit each state party to take effective measures to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or humiliating treatment or punishment in any territory under its jurisdiction.
The state also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in April 2014 of which Article (7) criminalizes subjecting anyone to torture and other cruel, inhuman or humiliating treatment or punishment.
Article (10) of this covenant also stresses that all persons deprived of their freedom be treated humanely and respectfully.
Moreover, Palestine attained the status of an Observer State at the United Nations in November 2012; therefore, it is committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
“They hit me in the face. In the interrogation sessions, I was forced to stand with my legs as far apart as possible. I was blindfolded, and my hands were raised. One of the interrogators hit me in the lower abdomen with a plastic bag containing an empty metal gas bomb. At that moment I fell to the floor because of the excruciating pain.”
A detainee from the city of Hebron: He was tortured by the General Intelligence Services when he was arrested in 2020.
Four soldiers attacked me and hit my shoulders, my stomach and my feet with their hands and boots. They started cussing me out and swearing at me. They beat me for around twenty minutes and punched my stomach, my left shoulder and my knees. They kept beating me all over fiercely with their feet.
A detainee from the city of Nablus: He was tortured by the Preventive Security Agency when he was arrested in 2021.
“I was subjected to falanga; they whipped my feet with a plastic tube or hose. This happened four times. After the beating, the interrogator would force me to walk in the corridor in front of the investigation office and run barefoot for ten minutes. They tied my hands in the back and threw the rope over the iron door and pulled hard until my body arched forward. The rope was tied to the iron door from behind, and they covered my head with a hood. The strappado/ reverse hanging sessions would last ten minutes each. This is besides being kept in solitary confinement and the constant cursing and threats levelled at me”.
A detainee from the city of Nablus: He was tortured during his arrest under the ‘Governor’s Law Act’ in 2019.
“When I was first detained at the Preventive Security Agency, I was beaten all over and was insulted and humiliated. Then, I was transferred to Jericho prison where I was tortured by the strappado/ reverse hanging method for at least six hours a day. This is in addition to severely beating me on my body and face and to the insults directed at me and my family. All this would recur for the ten days I had spent in detention. They were extremely inhumane conditions, and they forced me to insult the symbols of the resistance (Hamas).
A detainee from the city of Ramallah: He was tortured by the Preventive Security Agency when he was arrested in 2021.
Human rights activist Sahar Francis explains that torture declined in the years following the signing of the conventions, but it did not stop and was usually associated with the domestic political developments. Francis added that signing international agreements should align with domestic laws. The Palestinian Penal Code, for example, does not include a definition of torture or clear criteria for holding those who practice it accountable.
Does the Problem Lie in Palestinian Laws?
Lawyer Gandhi Amin, president of the organization ‘Right to Law Advocacy Consultation Group’, rejects this conclusion. He believes that the main defect is that the executive authority dares to overstep the laws without deterrence by the legislative or judicial branches of government.
We tried to highlight the defects in the application of the laws through a comparison of violations committed and the recommendations to end them, and have presented them to the Minister of Justice, Mohammad Shalaldeh to obtain his comments or rather we have submitted them to his representative. After corresponding with his office for a month, our request was rejected. We then contacted the Director of the Human Rights Unit at the Ministry of Interior, Haitham Arar, to ask why torture is still ongoing in violation of international conventions, and Arar refused to answer our queries because the investigation is “supervised by (ARIJ), which is not a registered media entity in Palestine” as Ms Arar stated.
Francis stresses the role of human rights institutions in limiting violations and highlights the mission of “Addameer Foundation” in documenting and following-up on the detainees’ files locally first, and then internationally. The organization files complaints to special rapporteurs, convention implementation committees, and the UN Human Rights Council.
Abu-Antar did not report his case to any of these institutions because he does not trust that they could produce any change. Lawyer Gandhi Amin agrees with this statement and says that the role of these institutions has waned in recent years.
Detainees are not the only people impacted by torture; their families are affected as well because they live the details of the harsh experiences for years to come. This includes feeling persecuted and insecure, says Abu-Antar who is unable to hide the impact of the arrests although it has been a year since his last detention. He says, “A detainee suffers from a much greater distress after the arrest: It is as though a fire is burning inside me, and I cannot sleep for days.”
This investigation was conducted with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism Network (ARIJ).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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