/ 12 October 2009

Tensions rise in West Bank

Palestinian authorities have begun a rare military trial of security officers accused of torturing a Hamas suspect to death at a time of an intensifying crackdown in the West Bank against the Islamist movement.

Haitham Amr (33), a nurse, was arrested by the Palestinian intelligence services, led by the Fatah political faction, at his home near Hebron in the occupied West Bank in June. Four days later he was dead, his body showing extensive bruising and swelling, including damage near the kidneys.

He was suspected of membership of the armed wing of Hamas and was the fourth prisoner with suspected Hamas links to die in Palestinian custody in the West Bank this year. No one was ever charged and, apart from Amr’s case, there have been no official investigations.

In another high-profile case last year, a Hamas preacher, Majd Barghouti, was tortured to death. The investigation of Amr’s death sheds new light on the often violent internal confrontation in the West Bank between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian security forces and their enemies from Hamas, which won the last Palestinian elections and now rules Gaza.

Many Hamas supporters have been arrested and some have been killed. Last month Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader, sacked the Hamas-supporting mayor of Qalqilya and his 15-member council. Although the Palestinian Authority says it is tackling terrorism, some Palestinians fear a slide into a police state.

Palestinian human rights groups say the abuse and torture of prisoners by Fatah-led security forces in the West Bank and by Hamas forces in Gaza are all too common. Three detainees have also died in Hamas custody in Gaza this year.

The deaths come at a time when a $161-million United States-led effort is under way in the West Bank to train several battalions of the Palestinian national security forces in preparation for possible future statehood.

At least 15 security officials have been investigated over the death of Amr, according to the Palestinian interior minister, Said Abu Ali. He said several officers were on trial in a military court, but would not give their names or ranks.

Abu Ali admitted that abuse and torture had happened in other cases but said there had been a great improvement in law and order in the West Bank. In August he issued new directions about the treatment of prisoners and said he was working to restore authority to the civil judiciary, away from the military, but that this required more prisons.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank was locked in a ‘war” with Hamas, he said. Security forces had found weapons and uniforms in raids on Hamas hideouts, a sign, he said, that the Islamist group wanted to create a security vacuum by undermining the Fatah-led security forces.

‘They were preparing themselves to be an equivalent power to the Palestinian Authority,” Abu Ali said. ‘In establishing a Palestinian state, there is one authority, one law, one weapon — We will not allow what happened in Gaza to happen here.”

Amr was arrested on June 11 when three vehicles filled with security forces arrived at his village, Beit ar-Rush al-Fauqa, in the southern hills of the West Bank. They told Abdullah Amr (66) that his son was wanted for questioning but gave no explanation.

The official account of the death states that Amr died after jumping from a second-floor window of the Hebron prison while trying to escape. But the family and human rights workers say his corpse showed no sign of a fall, whereas extensive bruising indicated that he had been beaten to death. The interior minister has since admitted Amr was tortured and died in custody.

Amr was a Hamas sympathiser, his father said, but not a militant. The rest of his family are strong Fatah loyalists, with some senior figures in the Palestinian security forces.’My son was taken — in order to be executed,” said Abdullah Amr. ‘The Palestinian Authority is responsible for punishing [the killers].”

The authorities conducted a postmortem, but the report has not been released. But Abdullah Amr, himself a nurse, examined his son’s corpse before burying him and saw heavy, dark-blue bruising and intense swelling on his legs and hips.

Investigators from al-Haq, a leading Palestinian human rights group, filmed the corpse and sent the video to a forensic pathologist with the World Organisation Against Torture in Geneva.

The organisation’s Patrice Mangin wrote back, saying he saw no signs of trauma suggesting a jump from a second-storey window. He did see marks on Amr’s wrists ‘consistent with tight and prolonged binding” and said it was ‘vital” to see the autopsy results.

According to al -Haq’s head, Shawan Jabarin, torture in Palestinian jails is becoming widespread because of the growing divide between Fatah and Hamas. Prisoners are often beaten, usually on the soles of their feet, or handcuffed in stress positions for hours — a notorious practice known as shabeh.

‘They can stop the torture in one day by taking a clear position that anyone who commits crimes or torture will be brought before a court and punished,” Jabarin said. ‘But all feel they are immune. This is the culture in security now.”

Palestinian law says a detainee must appear in court within 24 hours, but suspects were being held without charge for up to six months, Jabarin said. Up to 800 political prisoners are in West Bank jails, far more than in the past. —