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Palestinian Authority Denies Freedom of Speech

In the past six years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has detained dozens of people for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, says Amnesty International in a new report released today.

Human rights defenders, journalists, religious figures, writers, government officials, trade unionists and academics have all been detained as "prisoners of conscience" (people who have been imprisoned simply because of their identity, political or religious beliefs or non-violent political activities), according to the Amnesty International report. They are almost invariably detained outside the law and often held incommunicado. Reasons are rarely given for the arrests, but they frequently occur following criticism of the PA, especially after discussion of alleged corruption, human rights abuses or the peace talks with Israel.

"Often critics of the PA have been invited by one of the Palestinian security services for a short meeting over 'a cup of coffee,' only to emerge from detention days, weeks, or even months later," said Curt Goering, Senior Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). "We call on the Palestinian Authority to ensure that no one is detained or subjected to harassment for the non-violent expression of his or her beliefs, and is asking for the PA to release all such prisoners immediately." At least 13 such prisoners of conscience have been held since the start of this year.

President Yasser Arafat has never ratified the draft Basic Law, which was passed in 1996 by the Palestinian legislative Council and ensures the right to liberty and security of the person and the right to freedom of expression. However, there are several laws, including some inherited from the British Mandate and the 1995 Press and Publications Law, that could be used to authorize the detention of persons who have simply exercised their right to freedom of expression. Yet, one of the characteristics of human rights violations by the PA, including infringement of the right to freedom of expression, is that such violations usually occur outside any legal framework altogether.

Recent cases include:

( 'Abd al-Fattah Ghanem, a presidential adviser on refugees, was summoned on June 21, 2000, by the Palestinian police and arrested. A Palestinian police officer told his family that he had been arrested on orders from the President. He was held incommunicado until July 27, when his family was allowed to visit him. As of August 7, he was still denied access to his lawyers and further family visits were refused. No reason was given for his arrest but his family believed that he was held because of his statements to newspapers regarding the failure to find a just settlement to the Palestinian refugee issue.

( Sabri Abu Diab, a preacher from Silwan, East Jerusalem, was arrested by palestinian general intelligence on November 7, 1999, two days after he had criticized the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a sermon in a Ras al- 'Amud mosque. He was never interrogated or shown a warrant but was told that president Arafat had ordered his detention and that only Arafat could order his release. After 21 days, he was asked to sign an undertaking, a promissory guarantee not to speak against the PA; he refused but was nevertheless released the same day.

( Eight of the 20 prominent Palestinian signatories of a petition that severely criticized the PA were detained by Palestinian security services shortly after the petition was made public on November 27, 1999. Six of the detained were released after a month, while the other two, Dr.Ahmad Shakr Dudin and Dr. 'Abd al-Sattar Qasem, remained in detention until January 2000. Dr. 'Abd al-Sattar Qasem was re-arrested in February, again without any legal process. On July 6 the Palestinian High Court of Justice ordered his release, but he was only freed on July 28.

In addition to such detentions, the PA has closed down newspapers, research centers, news agencies, and television and radio stations for making critical remarks about the PA. Security forces have beaten journalists simply doing their jobs. In August 1998, members of the Palestinian police severely beat Munir Abu Rizq, the chief editor of the daily al-Hayat al-Jadida, after he tried to enter the Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza City. Munir Abu Rizq was attempting to cover a session of the special military court that was trying three Palestinians, two of whom were sentenced to death and immediately executed for murder.

"Freedom to express and report dissenting opinions is not only a fundamental human right, it is also a prerequisite for the exercise of other rights and a cornerstone of public accountability," said Maureen Greenwood, Middle East Advocacy Director for AIUSA. "Any violation of these rights is a threat to democracy and the free exchange of ideas."

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