Allegations of West Bank torture increase

By Tobias Buck in Jerusalem, Financial Times – 21 Nov 2010
www.ft.com/

Naiema Abu Ayyash’s worst fears were confirmed this month when she finally managed to visit her husband in Jericho prison.

Badr Abu Ayyash, 42, a farmer and local politician in the west Bank, was arrested by the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security unit on September 14. Aside from two brief and apparently supervised phone calls, his family was denied all contact with him.

“He looked very different,” said Ms Abu Ayyash, a mother of four. “He could hardly walk. He had difficulty breathing and was very thin. When he shook my hand, I noticed that he had no strength at all.”

She has no doubt her husband was tortured. “I started screaming at the officer: ‘What are you doing to him?”’ Her pleas fell on deaf ears. After a few cursory exchanges, her husband was led back to his cell.

According to former inmates and activists familiar with Palestinian prisons, Ms Abu Ayyash has every reason to be worried. They say prisoners affiliated with the Islamist Hamas movement, which runs the Gaza Strip, are beaten regularly and deprived of medicine and basic comforts such as blankets and mattresses.

There is evidence that a significant number of detainees are tortured during interrogation. The most common form of abuse is known as Shabeh, in which detainees are handcuffed and bound in stress positions for long periods.

Claims of torture and abuse by members of the Palestinian security forces are not new. There has, however, been a sharp rise in reported cases, leading Human Rights Watch to remark last month that “reports of torture by Palestinian security forces keep rolling in”. The New York-based organisation also bemoaned the “rampant impunity” of officers allegedly involved in the abuses.

Many analysts and observers fear that life in the west Bank is taking on an increasingly authoritarian hue. “I feel real concern that we are reaching the level of a police state,” says Shawan Jabarin, the director of al-Haq, a Ramallah-based human rights group.

It is a concern shared by Randa Siniora, the director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, the ombudsman responsible for processing complaints against Palestinian officials. Her commission received more complaints about torture in the west Bank in October than in any month since mid- 2009. “We are looking at a very gloomy situation,” she said. “I am afraid that this [problem of torture and abuse] will become systematic.”

Groups such as al-Haq, which once only documented human rights abuses by Israeli authorities, say they are spending an increasing amount of time on cases in which Palestinians abuse their fellow countrymen.

The deterioration is linked closely to a crackdown on Islamist activists and sympathisers after a deadly attack on Jewish West Bank settlers by Hamas gunmen in August. In an attempt to counter the renewed threat from Hamas, and keen to prove the PA capable of dealing forcefully with its rival, the authority’s General Intelligence and Preventive Security units rounded up more than 700 suspects.

Human rights groups say almost all were arrested without proper warrants and held, contrary to Palestinian law, without the assent of civilian judges or prosecutors. Many were denied access to lawyers and family members. In several dozen cases, including that of Mr Abu Ayyash, the Palestinian High Court of Justice ordered an immediate release – only for its decision to be either ignored or circumvented by the security apparatus.

For governments in Europe and North America, the worsening human rights situation poses a thorny political dilemma. Many of them provide generous financial support to the PA and regard Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, as an indispensable ally.

The US, fearing an Islamist takeover of the west Bank, has provided much of the training for Mr Fayyad’s security forces.

Some western diplomats say the harsh tactics will spark a popular backlash and undermine the PA. “This is of concern to us,” says one European diplomat. Human rights abuses threaten not only to “damage the long-term legitimacy and credibility of the Palestinian Authority” but raise difficult questions for donors: “If we are building a police state – what are we actually doing here?”

The PA dismisses much of the criticism as an “exaggeration”. Ghassan Khatib, director of the government media centre, concedes that there have been isolated cases of abuses but disputes the figures cited by al-Haq and others. “I am not trying to say there are no violations,” Mr Khatib argues. “But they are the exception, not the norm. They are against the orders. And whenever there are complaints we hold violators accountable.”

Diplomats and Palestinian activists say Mr Fayyad and his cabinet are keen to end the human rights violations. The problem, they believe, is that the prime minister lacks the authority to crack down on the two most problematic units – General Intelligence and Preventive Security – which have close ties to the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

Many argue that only concerted pressure by the US and the European Union, as well as joint action by Mr Abbas and Mr Fayyad, can bring about lasting change. There have been some signs that donor countries are starting to raise human rights concerns more forcefully.

For Ahmad Salhab, any change will come too late. The 42-year-old former mechanic says he was tortured on two occasions by Palestinian security officers. Repeated application of Shabeh during detention in late 2008 had left him with torn spinal discs.

He was arrested again by Preventive Security officers on September 19 and later transferred to the same Jericho prison as Mr Abu Ayyash. Mr Salhab says he was held in solitary confinement, deprived of the medication he requires as a result of the earlier abuse and subjected again to Shabeh. His condition deteriorated so badly that he could neither walk nor stand upright.

“I had to eat lying on my back. I had to pray on my back and other inmates had to carry me to the toilet,” he says.

Mr Salhab was released on October 16 but had to spend 10 days in Hebron hospital before he could return home. Now he walks on crutches and has little hope of ever making a full recovery.

“I never broke the law. I never assaulted anybody,” he says. “In the past, nobody would have believed that the PA would torture its own people. But now everybody knows that they do not respect human rights.”

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