Human Rights Watch condemned the Palestinian Authority for its illegal detention of eight public figures who criticized President Yasir Arafat's policies.

"This is another nail in the coffin of free expression for Palestinians," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "If public figures and elected officials are not free to criticize government policies without risking arrest, what ordinary citizen will dare to speak out?"

Twenty prominent personalities signed the November 27 petition, which criticized the negative impact of the Oslo agreements and charged Arafat with opening the door for widespread corruption. Two were held briefly under house arrest, one has been released on bail, and eight are being held without charge. The remaining nine are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and therefore have immunity from arrest.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that the Palestinian Legislative Council members who signed the petition may still be subject to arrest at a later date. The council has been under pressure to lift their immunity, and voted thirty-three to eight today to condemn the petition and set up a committee to monitor council members' behavior.

"This is an exceedingly dangerous precedent," Megally said. "The Legislative Council should be society's model for open debate, not the mechanism for restricting debate even among its own members."

Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of all individuals held for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression, and the revocation of all legislation criminalizing legitimate free expression. It also urged the Palestinian Legislative Council to state publicly its commitment to free expression and to resisting efforts to pressure the council to withdraw the immunity of members who exercise their right to free speech.