Hamas Interrogates, Detains Young Advocates, Suppresses Protests
August 22, 2011
If Hamas expects to be treated as a responsible governing authority, it should stop persecuting peaceful critics in Gaza.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(Jerusalem) – Hamas authorities in Gaza should halt their summonses, interrogations, arbitrary detentions, and other harassment apparently aimed at intimidating civil society activists  into silence, Human Rights Watch said today. Hamas should respect their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

On August 14, 2011, Hamas’s Internal Security agency detained a leading youth activist, Mohammed Matar, 24, known as Abu Yazan, and refused to allow his family or a lawyer to see him for 48 hours. Internal Security has summoned Yazan and another activist, Ebaa Rezeq, for questioning on several occasions since they traveled to France in June for social media training.

On August 16, Hamas security forces forcefully broke up a small demonstration in Gaza protesting Syrian government attacks that harmed Palestinian residents of a refugee camp in Syria, and detained some of the demonstrators.

“If Hamas expects to be treated as a responsible governing authority, it should stop persecuting peaceful critics in Gaza,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Hamas security forces have repeatedly detained Yazan over the past year. Hamas stepped up interrogations and detentions after he and seven others published a “Gaza Youth Manifesto” in late 2010 that criticized both Israel for the blockade of Gaza and Hamas for curbing freedom of expression, he said. Yazan was also a leader of the “March 15” movement, which organized demonstrations against the intra-Palestinian division between Hamas and its rival, Fatah, in the West Bank.

In the August 14 incident, Internal Security officers detained Yazan when he arrived at the security agency’s headquarters in the al-Ansar neighborhood in response to a summons – his third this month. Security services prevented him from seeing a lawyer or his family until they released him, on August 16. Yazan’s mother told Human Rights Watch that security officials at the al-Ansar compound refused to allow his family to see him and declined to accept food for him. Khalil Shahin, a lawyer at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that security officials also refused to allow him to meet with Yazan.

Yazan told Human Rights Watch that he was not physically abused or insulted, but that he was kept in a cell too small to allow him to lie down to sleep and given food “that was so bad that I threw up when I tried to eat it.” He said that four interrogators questioned him about his trip to France and the civil society movements and demonstrations he helped organize, including weekly demonstrations near the Israeli-imposed “buffer zone” on Gaza’s northern and eastern perimeters.

“They took all my passwords for my Facebook and Twitter and email accounts, and still haven’t given back my computer or mobile phone,” which security officials confiscated during a prior interrogation on August 7, Yazan said. He has been summoned to appear at the al-Ansar compound again on August 21. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been arrested and interrogated [by Hamas authorities]”, Yazan said. “More than 10 times since March, at least.”

From June 13 to 29, Yazan and Rezeq attended a training for social media activists in Paris. The trip was coordinated by the French Consulate in the West Bank and the French Cultural Center in Gaza.After the training, Yazan returned to Egypt, his departure point for France, and Egyptian authorities deported him to Gaza via the Rafah border crossing on June 29.

Rezeq returned to Egypt later. Although Egyptian authorities usually deport Palestinians to Gaza directly from the Cairo airport, she was able to stay with relatives in Cairo before returning to Gaza on July 27, she said.  Hamas authorities at the Rafah border crossing questioned her for two hours and apparently learned about Yazan’s activities in Paris at that time, Rezeq told Human Rights Watch. Hamas authorities also confiscated Rezeq’s camera, external hard drive, memory cards, SIM cards, and printed materials and other possessions, which they have not returned, she said.

Internal security officials summoned Rezeq for interrogation at their al-Ansar headquarters on August 7 and 9, and summoned Yazan on August 7 and 8. They were questioned about their role in the March 15 protest movement calling for unity between Fatah and Hamas, their activities on social media sites like Facebook, and whether they had met with any Israeli or Western “spies” during their trip to France. Rezeq said that internal security officials refused to allow her lawyer to be present during her interrogations, and required her to wear hijab (head veil) during her interrogations.“And also they brought a prayer mat for me to cover my legs,” said Rezeq, who was wearing pants.

Yazan and Rezeq said that Hamas authorities have in recent months begun close questioning of Gaza residents who travel to Western countries. Hamas authorities have not charged Yazan or Rezeq with any crime, or referred to any suspected criminal activity to justify repeatedly interrogating them. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any instance in which Yazan or Rezeq have called for violent protests.

In a related development, Human Rights Watch met on August 18 with several 16-year-old students from Gaza who had been granted AMIDEAST scholarships to study in the US, but whom Hamas refused permission to leave Gaza. The students asked not to be named. The Hamas education minister cited “social and cultural reasons” for its decision, said the students and a statement by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. The students said they will lose their scholarships if Hamas does not reverse its decision by August 25.

“Hamas should be encouraging young people to seek educational opportunities, not arbitrarily blocking them from traveling abroad to study,” Stork said.

Hamas also violently dispersed protesters who had gathered in the al-Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City, on the evening of August 16, to demonstrate solidarity with the residents of a Palestinian refugee camp near the Syrian city of Latakia. The UN refugee camp’s residents had been caught up in recent Syrian government attacks on Syrian anti-government protesters the city.

Human Rights Watch observed about 30 people gathering. They displayed three large Syrian flags. About 10 minutes later, Hamas security forces arrived and detained several protesters, pushed them into security vehicles, and left the area. Human Rights Watch saw no signs of violence by the demonstrators in the few minutes before the authorities broke up the demonstration.

Human Rights Watch spoke to one arrested protester, who asked not to be named:

Suddenly someone behind me began to beat me with a club, and a policeman grabbed me and threw me into a vehicle. They asked me what I was doing there, and when I told him I was protesting one of them slapped me in the face, four times. They kept on cursing me and insulting my mother. They looked through the contacts in my mobile phone and told me to call a friend of mine who was in the demonstration, and get him to say that he was in the demonstration. I did what they wanted.

They took me then to a police station, put me in a cell, and after about two hours a mabahith officer (police detective) questioned me about who was involved in the demonstration, what organization was I part of, who were the members of the group. I said that I’d simply heard there was going to be a demo to support the Syrian people. In the end, before they would let me go they made me sign a pledge that I won’t attend any unauthorized demonstrations in the future.

Hamas officials said the protest organizers had failed to obtain a permit.  Palestinian law, however, only requires protest organizers to notify police authorities 48 hours in advance of their intention to hold a demonstration.