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Hamas authorities in Gaza should investigate the recent abduction and apparent torture of three men by the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should hold accountable any individuals responsible for serious abuses.

On May 20, 2008, the al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, announced that it had arrested three men who they claimed were part of a larger “cell” working with Israeli security services. A statement said that: “The cell that was uncovered by the Security Apparatus of the Al-Quds Battalions includes very dangerous collaborators who were recruited by the Occupation in the 1990s.”

An Islamic Jihad spokesman who gave his name as “Abu Ahmad” told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview that the group held the men in a private detention center and interrogated them for close to two weeks.

“An armed group like al-Quds Brigades has no legal right to arrest, detain, or interrogate suspects,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “As the de facto political authority in Gaza, the government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya needs to show it won’t tolerate vigilante abuse.”

A spokesman for the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry told Human Rights Watch that, as of May 18, all three men had been transferred to the custody of the Hamas-controlled Internal Security Force. The spokesman, Ihab al-Ghussein, said Hamas had called on Islamic Jihad to transfer the men after learning of their detention. “They were severely beaten and tortured,” he said.

However, al-Ghussein also said that the Internal Security Force was now interrogating the men regarding the allegations of collaboration. “The interrogation is still under way and after that [the three men] will be transferred to the prosecution [authorities],” al-Ghussein said.

Human Rights Watch said that Hamas should either release the men now in their custody or charge them with a recognizable criminal offense and try them in accordance with international fair trial standards. While in detention, the men should be treated fairly and granted access to a lawyer. They should also be speedily brought before a judicial authority with the power to review the legality of their detention and order their release.

Despite some improvements in recent months, Hamas-run security forces in Gaza frequently use force against detainees during interrogations and deny them their due process rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Relatives of one of the abducted men, Salah Abdullah Awad, 44, a former captain in the General Intelligence Service of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, told Human Rights Watch he showed visible signs of torture when they recently visited him in prison.

“He was unable to stand normally on his feet. Someone was helping him to stand and walk,” Awad’s 24-year-old son Bakr told Human Rights Watch. “He was very tired, with clear signs of torture on his body. There were remains of burns on his feet.”

The Hamas spokesman criticized Islamic Jihad for abducting and torturing the men, but stopped short of announcing an investigation into their actions. “We have stressed that the factions have no right to arrest any person,” al-Ghussein said.

Bakr Awad told Human Rights Watch that his father was abducted from outside their family home in the town of Rafah on May 7, but that the family only learned of his whereabouts on May 20.

“During the whole time of his detention, we did not receive any information or signal about him,” Bakr Awad said. “We were looking for him on the streets and at his friend’s.”

Salah Awad told his family when they visited him in prison on May 24 that he had been coerced under torture to make a videotaped confession, which was released on the internet. Salah “tried to tuck up his jellabiya [a shoulder-to-ankle length garment] to show the traces of torture on the rest of his body, but the internal security officer who was at his desk in the office told him to be quiet and not to do so,” Bakr Awad said.

The spokesman for Islamic Jihad told Human Rights Watch that the group “arrested” Salah Awad and the other men for their alleged collaboration with Israeli security forces in separate targeted attacks between 2005 and 2008 that killed three armed group leaders and the March 2008 shelling of a mosque that killed eight Hamas fighters. He denied the group had tortured any of the men. “They were questioned without any physical pressure,” he said. “Al-Quds Brigades held the spies in its own places and specialized people interrogated them.”

The al-Quds Brigades also placed on the internet a similar videotaped confession of another prisoner, Saleh Khalil Abu Zaid, 60, a former construction worker. Human Rights Watch spoke with a 16-year-old witness about Abu Zaid’s May 10 abduction:

“I saw a white Subaru car carrying four or five masked gunmen. They drove slowly and stopped near a man when he was walking in the street. They got out carrying Kalashnikovs and told him to get into the car. One took him by the arm and put him in the middle of the back seat, and drove away.”

Since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, rival factions in the West Bank and Gaza have attacked, detained, and in some cases killed their opponents. Arbitrary arrests, torture and due process violations by both Fatah and Hamas forces are common.

“The Hamas authorities in Gaza, who control the governing institutions there, have a duty to prosecute those responsible for these abductions and apparent use of torture,” Stork said.

Palestinian law and international human rights law alike prohibit arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as torture and other serious abuses in detention, Human Rights Watch said. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, requires that all detained persons be brought promptly before a judge and have access to legal counsel and family members. Persons detained under suspicion of having committed a crime should be charged with a recognizable criminal offense, and receive a prompt trial meeting international fair trial standards.

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