Torture, Unfair Trials, Then Shot Down
(New York) – The Gaza government has apparently not even begun a promised investigation more than four months after gunmen killed seven Palestinian prisoners accused of collaboration with Israel. Meanwhile, the Hamas government has set a deadline of April 11, 2013, for suspected collaborators to turn themselves in, promising them an amnesty.
The men, who were last seen alive in custody during the November 2012 fighting with Israel, were executed on a public street. One of the men’s bodies was dragged behind a motorcycle. Military courts had convicted the men primarily on the basis of coerced confessions, ignoring credible evidence that interrogators tortured at least six of them.
“Hamas’s inability or unwillingness to investigate the brazen murders of seven men makes a mockery of its claims that it’s upholding the rule of law in Gaza,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Even before the killings, the abuses the men suffered made the criminal justice system a travesty, regardless of their guilt or innocence.”
In a separate case, on March 24, 2013, a military court in Gaza sentenced a man arrested in August 2011 and convicted of collaborating with Israel to death by hanging. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of severe due-process violations, abuse of detainees, and unfair trials in Gaza; Palestinian rights groups recorded more than 100 allegations of torture in 2012 alone. The government should at least impose an immediate moratorium on executions, and preferably end the death penalty altogether, Human Rights Watch said.
In an April 6 statement on the website of the Gaza Interior Ministry, Muhammad Lafi, the deputy director of the Internal Security agency, stated that the security services had recently arrested an unspecified number of collaborators – allegedly working for “Western intelligence agencies” – and that “half of them have confessed.”
Hamas set the April 11 deadline for surrender for a promised amnesty under the terms of what Hamas calls the “National Campaign against Collaborating with the Enemy.” Lafi told Al-Monitor, a regional news website, that the agency has a list of collaborators who will be arrested if they do not turn themselves in.
The families of the seven men killed in November last saw them alive in detention facilities in Gaza, in some cases days before they were murdered, raising concerns that prison officials failed to protect them from the killers or, worse, handed them over.
Gunmen killed one of the victims on November 16, while the other six were killed on November 20, during the eight-day Israeli military offensive in Gaza.
The Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, claimed responsibility for the latter six killings, and notes were pinned to the bodies reading: “Al-Qassam Brigades announces the execution of the traitors,” international news organizations reported. The gunmen tied some of the six corpses to motorcycles and dragged them through the streets. The faces of some of the motorcyclists are visible in photographs that have been published on news websites.
Some Hamas officials offered weak justifications for the killings at the time. Ma’an, a Palestinian news agency, quoted Mahmud Zahar, a Hamas leader, as telling journalists on November 24: “We will not allow one collaborator to be in Gaza, and let human rights groups say whatever they want. A human has rights if they have honor and not if they are a traitor.”
Hamas security officials also falsely claimed that one of the men had confessed to aiding Israel while the six others “were caught red-handed” and “possessed hi-tech equipment and filming equipment to take footage of positions” during Israel’s November military offensive in Gaza, Palestinian media reported. All seven men had been in detention for months or years before the November 2012 hostilities, however.
Other Hamas leaders, including deputy politburo chief Musa Abu Marzouq, condemned the killings and called for those responsible to be held accountable. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Gaza government, stated on November 25 that Hamas had established an independent committee to investigate the killings, although he gave no details of its composition. On December 2, at a meeting with the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), the Palestinian national institution for human rights, Haniyeh criticized the killings, pledged to implement the committee’s recommendations, and said that the government would consider compensating the victims’ families if the committee called on it to do so.
The government has not announced any information about the committee’s membership, work, or findings. Haniyeh did not respond to a letter from the ICHR in March requesting information about the committee. Of the five families of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch in December, four said in April that they had not been contacted by the committee. The wife of one of the men said that a Hamas official told her son that the killers had been caught and were being interrogated, but that she knew of no information to support that claim. The fifth family could not be reached for comment.
Family members of five of the six men killed on November 20, interviewed separately, said that when they went to collect their bodies at al-Shifa hospital that day, they found that the five bodies had been dumped together on the floor of the morgue, that hospital officials prevented them from recovering them for 24 hours, and that the bodies were in the same place the following day. The family of the sixth man declined to be interviewed.
The military prosecutor had charged the man who was killed on November 16 with collaborating with the enemy, and his trial was in progress at the time of his murder. Military courts had previously convicted the six men killed on November 20 of collaborating with the enemy, but in each case, appeals courts were still hearing their cases.
In at least four of the seven cases, the judicial authorities in Gaza appear to have ignored claims that the men had been denied access to family members and lawyers for long periods, that they had been tortured in detention, and that their convictions for collaboration were based on confessions obtained under duress, according to the men’s families, lawyers, and court documents that Human Rights Watch reviewed.
Military courts have issued 13 death sentences against alleged collaborators, and the Interior Ministry has executed six of them since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, according to the Independent Commission for Human Rights. During and after hostilities with Israel in 2008 and 2009, gunmen and members of the security services in Gaza extrajudicially executed at least 32 people, including alleged collaborators. Hamas authorities told Human Rights Watch at the time that they had investigated four of the cases, which involved deaths in detention, and had filed charges against two police officers involved.
“Months after seven Palestinians were murdered in broad daylight, seemingly with the collusion of security officials, the Hamas authorities in Gaza appear not to have lifted a finger to investigate, let alone to hold those responsible to account,” Whitson said. “Hamas should be taking concrete steps to reform the criminal justice system and break the cycle of impunity that, as these men’s cases show, lets torturers and killers roam free.”
The Prisoners Killed in November
On November 16, a group of armed men brought Ashraf Abdel Hamid Aweidah, 41, to the Naser neighborhood in Gaza City, where they shot and killed him. On November 20, gunmen brought Amer al-Af, Zoheir Hamudi, Ribhi Badawi, Bilal al-Abatsa, Ghassan Asfour, and Fadel Abu Shaluf to an intersection between the Sheikh Radwan and al-Naser neighborhoods in northern Gaza City, and shot and killed them, witnesses said.
Aweidah, 41, a father of seven, owned a car-parts store on Qiyada Street in the Zeytoun neighborhood of Gaza City. Four men in civilian clothes arrested him at his home on December 26, 2011, his wife, Hitam, 39, told Human Rights Watch.
They said, “We just need to talk to him for five minutes,” and they took him away. Fifteen days later, police in uniforms showed up and confiscated his Jeep and our car. They made him call us to tell us to give up the vehicles. That was the first time we’d heard from him. We found out that he was held by Internal Security at the “Governor’s Castle” [Qasr al-Hakim, a detention center]. We went there for a month but they always told us it was “prohibited” to see him. When I was able to see him, I told him, “Ashraf, this is taking too long,” and he held up one arm and said, “Patience.” I could see underneath his arm that his skin was all bruised. He’d been tortured but we couldn’t talk about it. There were guards behind him.
Gaza’s military court initially assigned a lawyer to defend Aweidah; the family later hired Ibrahim al-Haddad, a private lawyer. Al-Haddad told Human Rights Watch that Aweidah was charged on June 20, 2012, with conveying information to the enemy to aid its military forces, undermining the reputation of the Palestinian revolution, and accessory to murder under the 1979 PLO Revolutionary Penal Code. Al-Haddad said that he met with Aweidah only in military court hearings, because Aweidah refused to see him elsewhere. Al-Haddad did not see physical evidence of torture but said that Aweidah’s confession did not appear to be credible and that he appeared to change his statements to the court under coercion:
My client confessed to everything, to every attack on Gaza. They said he had a GPS in his Jeep so that he was in constant communications with satellites. His confession was 130 pages long. He kept changing the dates of his supposed actions. He’d say something in court, then they’d take him back to Internal Security and he’d correct himself the next time. I only knew he was in Internal Security because he told me so in court, that’s all I knew. I asked the judge to transfer him to prison [from the Internal Security detention facility] but the judge said it wasn’t in his power.
The Gaza security services distributed a video of Aweidah in which he confessed to sending information to Israel that Israeli forces used to kill Hamas leaders including Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi in 2004 and Said Siyam in 2009, Al-Monitor reported.
Al-Haddad said he had appeared before the Military District Court in Gaza City three times in Aweidah’s case, but that the prosecution had not transferred Aweidah’s entire file to him, hindering his ability to prepare a defense. Aweidah’s trial was still in progress when he was killed.
Aweidah’s family last visited him at the detention facility on November 10. Six days later, “a cousin called to say he’d been killed in the street,” Aweidah’s father-in-law, Abdel Samiah Barawi, told Human Rights Watch.
Unidentified gunmen killed Amer al-Af, 37, on November 20, 2012. Mona al-Af, his 33-year-old wife, told Human Rights Watch that her husband had owned a café near the beach and was detained on August 30, 2010:
We didn’t know where he was. Four days later, Internal Security men searched our home and said, “Don’t worry, he’s with us.” Four months after that, he called to say he needed a change of clothes. They had finished investigating him by then. He had lost so much weight. He said they had tied him up and hung him from a hook. It was in a long room that he said other prisoners called “the bus.”
Al-Af’s son, Hassan, 18, one of six children, said that his father was detained by Internal Security at the “Governor’s Castle” detention facility for three-and-a-half months:
He was transferred [during that period] for family visits to al-Ansar [detention facility], and later they sent him to al-Katiba prison. He could only whisper what had happened to him. There were guards in the room and we talked to him behind a glass window. He needed help standing up, the guards had to give him a hand. He said that when he was transferred to al-Katiba, the torture had ended and that “I can rest now,” because they had finished investigating him.
Al-Af’s family said the prosecution claimed that he had distributed money to Israeli informants. On January 24, 2011, a military court sentenced al-Af to death after convicting him of collaborating with the enemy. The death sentence triggered an automatic appeal to the military appeals court. After the lower-level court issued its sentence, the family hired a lawyer, Mohamed Najjar, to represent him at the appeal. The family said that Najjar urged the appeals court to throw out evidence based on al-Af’s confession on the ground that it had been obtained under torture.
His family said that the appeals court stated on November 4, 2012, that it would deliver its verdict in December.
On November 20, Mona al-Af said, “People called my grandfather’s house” to inform the family that Amer al-Af had been “killed near the Bahlul gas station on Nasser Street.” Family members said they went to al-Shifa hospital at 9 p.m. that day to collect his remains, but that hospital staff refused to allow them to do so until the following day. Hassan al-Af told Human Rights Watch:
I was there when his body was brought in. He had been shot twice, once in the neck, once in the back of his head. They just put his body on the floor in the morgue. We waited until 11 p.m., but they said, ”First we’ll release the [bodies of the] martyrs, then we’ll deal with your bodies.” They called us back the next day, at 10:30 a.m. I saw the six bodies all on the floor, they hadn’t refrigerated them. They were stacked on top of one another.
Internal Security officials arrested Ribhi Badawi, who was 37 when he was killed, on August 22, 2009, his family told Human Rights Watch. According to his family, Badawi had been a member of the “Jaljalat,” an armed group that accuses Hamas of having compromised its religious and nationalist principles, and supported Abdulatif Musa, the leader of a religious group that opposed Hamas. Hamas forces killed Musa and more than two dozen of his supporters during a firefight in a mosque in Rafah in 2009. Badawi had participated in the fighting in Rafah but fled to Gaza City, his family said. One of Badawi’s relatives, who asked not to be identified, said:
Internal Security officers and people in military uniforms came to our home and arrested him. For seven months, we didn’t see or hear from him. Then, on our first visit, he told us that he’d been tortured for 55 days. They broke his teeth; we saw stitches in his mouth. And he said they’d suspended him off the ground, with his arms tied behind his back. We met him at the Internal Security prison [called al-Ansar]. We brought him fresh clothes and took his old ones, which were full of blood. He said, “Something serious happened to me that made me sign [a confession].”
Badawi’s lawyer said that during the course of his detention, the military prosecutor changed the charges against him from terrorism, for his actions as a member of the Jaljalat, to collaborating with the enemy and murder under the 1979 Revolutionary Penal Code.
The military prosecutor charged Badawi on August 22, 2009. After that, the Interior Ministry transferred Badawi to al-Katiba prison, where his family was able to visit him regularly. “We would visit him every 15 days,” his relative said. “He told the court that he was with the Jaljalat but rejected the collaboration charge, and they returned him to prison and pulled out his beard.”
Ihab al-Jabari, the lawyer who defended Badawi, told Human Rights Watch that the military district court in Gaza City cleared Badawi of the murder charge, but convicted him of collaborating with the enemy and sentenced him to death by hanging on October 11, 2011, triggering an appeal. Al-Jabari showed Human Rights Watch Badawi’s file and described the case:
His confession said that he had walked through the front lines during the 2009 war [with Israel] in the Izbt abd-Rabbo neighborhood [in Gaza], met an Israeli intelligence officer and received $1.5 million and the names of 2,500 other collaborators to whom he was supposed to distribute the money, and then he walked back across the front line. We showed there was no way he could have done that in the amount of time the prosecution said it took, which was just a few hours. We argued that he had contradicted his confession, and confessed under torture, that he hadn’t been able to see a lawyer at all during his interrogation, but the judge didn’t believe us.
The last of 15 hearings before the military appeals court in Badawi’s case was scheduled for November 20, 2012, the day he was killed. He is survived by his wife and five children. His youngest daughter was born after he was in jail; he had told the family to name her “Innocence” in response to what his family said was the false collaboration charge.
Another relative, who asked not to be identified, said, “After he was killed and we got his body, we saw burns from cigarettes, and that his penis had been burned.” His body had also been disfigured by being dragged behind a motorcycle. “There was no skin on his back, the bones were showing,” the relative said.
Zoheir Ahmad Mohamed Hamudi, from Beit Lahiya, was 47 when he was killed on November 20. Until 2001, Hamudi had worked in Israel. One of his eight children, Roma, 19, had received medical treatment at an Israeli hospital from 2005 to 2008, after playing with unexploded ordnance as a child, which blew off his right hand. His family speculates that these connections with Israel may have triggered the suspicions of Hamas security officials that Hamudi and his wife were spies for Israel.
Internal Security officials arrested Hamudi and his wife on April 17, 2011, relatives told Human Rights Watch. “It took us three months to find out where they were held, by Internal Security, but they wouldn’t let us visit and they didn’t tell us any information about them for about one year,” until they were charged and transferred to al-Katiba prison, Hamudi’s brother’s wife, Rasmiya Mahmoudi, 46, said.
His wife’s sister, Soheila Dahamas, 50, said she was the first member of his family to visit him in prison, at the Katiba facility during Ramadan in 2011:
I said, “Did they torture you?” He said yes, they did. He showed me the inside of his ankle, where they’d burned him. He said they drew a picture of a motorcycle on a wall and told him to ride it, and then tortured him since of course he couldn’t. He said the torture made him confess to things he didn’t do.
Both husband and wife were charged with treason, and Hamudi was also charged with accessory to murder, under the 1979 Revolutionary Penal Code. Human Rights Watch examined court documents, including witness statements (with names redacted) presented by the military prosecution, dated June 21, 2011.
The court convicted them both on September 12, 2012, sentencing Hamudi to death and his wife to 10 years in prison. Before Hamudi’s death, his lawyer had appealed his conviction on the basis of a procedural error by the lower court because his conviction was signed by the head of the court rather than the judge presiding in his case, as required by law. “The last appeals hearing was set for November 4, but they delayed it, and then the fighting started,” the lawyer said. “We were expecting his case to be sent back for a re-trial” by the lower military court.
Another of Hamudi’s relatives, who asked not to be named, said that the family believed he had been murdered at around 11 a.m. on November 20. “We got a call from someone who recognized him at 3 p.m. We went to the gas station but they wouldn’t give them to us because of the crowd. People were stomping on the bodies.”
Hamudi’s son Wisam, 26, also went to try to recover his father’s body. “After an hour we returned in a car but they had taken the bodies to al-Shifa [hospital]. But they wouldn’t give him up. At 9 a.m. the next day we went to get him. The bodies were still on the floor in the hospital. We saw scars and burn marks on his body.” Hospital staff had refused to give the family an autopsy report or a death certificate, relatives said.
Family members said that officials at al-Katiba prison did not allow Hamudi’s wife, who is incarcerated there, to attend her husband’s funeral.
Bilal Jamal Abdel Majd al-Abatsa, from Khan Yunis, was 26 when he was killed on November 20, 2012.
Internal Security officials had summoned him to their compound in Khan Yunis on May 18, 2010. Al-Abatsa had been a laborer in the smuggling tunnels beneath Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, and also a member of the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, Saraya al-Quds, his family said. His uncle, Dr. Jamil al-Abatsa, 60, recently retired from the Planning Ministry in Gaza, said that when the family received the summons from Internal Security, “I had asked Bilal, ‘Did you smuggle drugs, or weapons to the Jaljalat in the tunnels?’ He said no, and I believed him, so I thought it was safe for him to go to Internal Security.”
His family later learned that Internal Security officials immediately transferred him to Gaza City for interrogation. “We didn’t know where he was for 17 days, and we couldn’t visit him for 90 days,” said his father, Jamal al-Abatsa, 59. Two weeks after arresting him, Internal Security officials came to the house and searched his room without presenting a search warrant, his family said, and questioned his family about whether he was a member of Jaljalat, which they denied.
In early June, 2010, Internal Security officials summoned al-Abatsa’s father, two of his brothers, and his wife to the Ansar compound in Gaza City for questioning, and said that he was suspected of collaborating with Israel. “They asked me, ‘Who paid for his wedding? Where does he get his money?’ But I paid for it. The day before they arrested him, I was still paying off the debt,” his father said. Al-Abatsa’s brother and father said they were summoned repeatedly thereafter by Internal Security and the military prosecutor’s office in Gaza City.
His wife and mother visited him in mid-September, 2010. “We talked to him through a window,” said his wife, Abeer. “He said he had been tortured, that he couldn’t stand up. [His daughter] Alaa was a week old then and he asked to be allowed to hold her, but he needed help, he was too weak to hold her. He had lost four teeth, his vision in both eyes was very bad. I got to see him every two weeks for about 20 minutes.”
Human Rights Watch observed numerous court documents from al-Abatsa’s trials before a military district court and a military appeals court, in Gaza City. His first trial began on September 29, 2010, and ended, after 30 hearings, with his conviction on charges of collaborating with the enemy, on October 6, 2011. The lower military court’s death sentence triggered an appeal, where Ghazi Abu Warda, a lawyer in Gaza City, represented al-Abatsa, and presented defense witnesses at three hearings. Al-Abatsa’s cousin, Yehia Musa, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, testified that he had visited him in detention and believed he had been abused in custody. At a fourth hearing, al-Abatsa told the court he had been tortured. The hearings ended in March, but the appeals court repeatedly delayed its verdict and had not delivered it at the time he was killed.
His mother last saw al-Abatsa on October 27, 2012, in al-Katiba prison. “We were supposed to see him on the day he was killed,” she said. When the family retrieved his body, “we couldn’t see his eyes, his face had been beaten so badly,” a relative said. Human Rights Watch viewed a video of al-Abatsa’s burial and of his body in a mosque, with bruises visible on his eyes.
Although Human Rights Watch did not investigate the killing of Fadel Shaluf, 24, from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, his case was reported in-depth in the media. These reports indicated that he had been tortured in detention. He was abducted on January 10, 2008, his relatives told the New York Times. Shaluf’s father told the newspaper that the Internal Security agency summoned him nine days later, and that he saw Fadel; interrogators had broken his fingers, dripped melted hoses onto his skin, and hung him from the ceiling by his ankles.
Ghassan Asfour, from the Shaja’iya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City,was also murdered on November 20, 2012. Human Rights Watch contacted his family, who preferred not to be interviewed about his case.