Human Rights Watch met with Hamas justice minister Faraj al-Ghoul and other government officials on May 13, 2010. At the meeting, Hamas agreed to our request to grant us access to detainees in Gaza's central prison. After our interviews with detainees, we wrote to Hamas to request further information about particular detainees, as well as about additional matters we investigated. The letter is posted below, with names and identifying information redacted because some of the victims involved feared retaliation for any publicity about their cases. As of August 1, Hamas had not replied to our letter.
Minister of Interior
Dear Minister Hamad,
Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization that reports on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in more than 80 countries around the world.
We are writing to follow up on our meeting in May with Mahmoud al-Hajali, deputy director of the media office at the Interior Ministry police station, and with members of the mabahith security forces whom we met at their offices at the police headquarters in Gaza City. Specifically, we request information with respect to the policies and practices of the Interior Ministry police responsible for "morality offenses." We also wish to request information regarding a number of particular cases that have come to our attention.
1. We understand that one of the responsibilities of the mabahith security forces of the Interior Ministry is to investigate, interrogate and refer for prosecution individuals suspected to be in violation of certain codes of moral conduct. To this end, we are aware of several cases of mabahith approaching men and women who are seated together in a café or restaurant, or at a beach, or in a car, and requesting proof that they are married, engaged or otherwise related. In several cases, we understand that mabahith have demanded the identity cards and cellphone numbers of those whom they have so interrogated.
a. Does Palestinian law as applied in Gaza, whether under the penal code or any other law or regulation, restrict men and women from mingling or otherwise socializing in public places if they are not married or otherwise related? If so, can you please identify to us the relevant articles of the penal code or applicable law?
b. What is the authority of the mabahith to question men and women who appear together in public places?
c. Why do mabahith wear plainclothes rather than uniforms when conducting such questioning?
d. We understand it is the practice of the mabahith to refuse to divulge their identity; the mabahith we spoke to in Gaza City in May told us that they would never identify their names to anyone whom they were questioning. They also would not provide us with their names.
e. We were informed that the mabahith were authorized to interrogate people based on "suspicion" of "immoral behavior" but were unable to obtain information regarding what evidence or observation by police qualifies as "suspicion" of "immoral behavior." What is the standard?
f. Is there any limit on the number of times mabahith may summon citizens for interrogation before seeking a warrant from the judiciary? We are aware of a number of cases where individuals were brought in repeatedly to the police station for interrogation over a period of two weeks, each interrogation lasting several hours, and asking the same questions.
2. It is our understanding that the mabahith summoned [name redacted] for interrogation on [date redacted], at which time they confiscated his identification card and cell phone. [Name redacted] alleges that during his first interrogation on that date, an unknown mabahith officer insisted that he confess to extramarital affairs. Our information is that [name redacted] denied the allegations and returned in response to summons for further interrogations on [date redacted], and again on [date redacted]. On that date, he alleges, mabahith including an officer who identified himself as [name redacted] blindfolded him, punched him in the chest, and beat him with a leather-wrapped bamboo cane on his buttocks for approximately 50 minutes, insisting that he confess to having had extramarital affairs. He was ordered to return for interrogation on [date redacted], he said, and was forced to stand in painful positions for prolonged periods (shabeh). He returned for interrogation on [date redacted], with the same pattern of physical duress and interrogation. On [date redacted], he returned for interrogation at 10 a.m., and [name redacted] returned his identification card but continued to retain his cell phone.
a. Is the Interior Ministry aware of the interrogation of [name redacted]? If so, what is the basis for their interrogation?
b. Does the Interior Ministry condone or allow forcible interrogations? If not, what steps are being taken to prevent ill-treatment in custody?
c. If interrogation using physical force is against the law and policies of the government in Gaza, we request that the Interior Ministry conduct an investigation into the interrogation of [name redacted] , specifically with regard to the conduct of "Abu Noor." We would appreciate learning the findings of such an investigation, including whether any disciplinary actions are taken against responsible mabahith officers.
3. Prior to his interrogation, [name redacted] and numerous waiters in his employ at [place name redacted] told us that mabahith officers including [name redacted] and another man known as [name redacted] started to frequent the café, approaching men and women, and in some cases groups of women, sitting together at tables. The mabahith would demand information from their clients, demand to know their relationship to the other guests, retrieve their cellphone numbers and check their identification cards. These practices intensified during the month of April, with near-daily visits by mabahith officers.
a. On what basis did mabahith officers target [place name redacted] clientele for interrogation?
b. Did mabahith officers obtain a judicial warrant to conduct any ongoing investigation and interrogation of [place name redacted] afé's clientele?
4. According to information received by Human Rights Watch, mabahith officers have also entered the [place name redacted] café to conduct similar interrogations of clientele at the café. Our understanding is that mabahith officers entered the café on May 12 and examined the clientele without posing questions. Approximately eight months ago, mabahith officers entered the café and seized a hookah pipe that two women were using, and took the women for interrogation, saying they were going to determine whether they were smoking hashish. What is the basis for the mabahith's repeated visits to this café and interrogation of its customers?
5. Human Rights Watch received information about five persons who are detained at the central prison in Gaza City for suspected morality offenses. We would appreciate further information about (1) the laws under which they are being detained; (2) any charges with or convictions against them; (3) if they have not been charged, whether the law provides a maximum period of detention before they must be charged or released; (4) whether there is any reason they have not been or could not be released on bail or by signing a pledge; and (5) whether any alternatives to their continued detention have been considered. The cases are as follows:
a. [Name redacted] , has been detained for approximately one year after being arrested on suspicion of a homosexual act. He alleges that he during his interrogation, he was subjected to torture, including falaka, and pressured to confess, as well as forced to reveal the names of other men and boys with whom he had had relations. Our understanding is that [name redacted] has not been charged or brought before a judge and is unable to afford a lawyer to challenge his detention; his family refuses to help him obtain a lawyer.
b. [Name redacted] , a former taxi driver, said he has been detained at the prison for four months without charge on suspicion of committing zina (consensual extra-marital sexual relations). According to [name redacted], his case has been heard three times by a judge, but the judge has repeatedly deferred the trial and extended his detention because he has not appeared with a lawyer, which he cannot afford.
c. [Names redacted] were transferred to detention at the central prison after they turned themselves in to a police station in Saja'iya and confessed to committing zina. The two told Human Rights Watch that they had falsely confessed to the offense in order to be arrested, because they believed their arrest would pressure their families to agree to allow them to be married.
d. [Name redacted] is detained for having committed zina. [Name redacted] told Human Rights Watch that she has been lawfully married for over 10 years to the man she is accused of having committed zina with, and has [number redacted] children with him, all of whom are in [word redacted] in the care of her mother. She explained that she was married to her husband in Jordan, after divorcing her first husband, but has had difficulty obtaining proof of her marital records from there. She and her husband lived in the West Bank together until her husband was expelled to Gaza by the Israeli government. After her husband returned to Gaza, she moved to Gaza to join him. However, her family in the West Bank opposes her second marriage and have deliberately alleged that the pair are not married in order to prevent her husband from inheriting any of her family's wealth.
Human Rights Watch will look forward to reflecting your responses to our questions in future statements on this matter. We will be able to do so if you respond by June 10.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch