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(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should immediately end the cruel and inhuman treatment of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit of Israel and allow him to communicate with his family and receive visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Human Rights Watch said today. June 25, 2010 is the fourth anniversary of his captivity.

Hamas authorities are violating the laws of war by refusing to allow Shalit to correspond with his family, Human Rights Watch said, and have refused to allow either his family or the ICRC to visit him since his capture on June 25, 2006. Hamas has passed on only three letters from him, a voice recording, and a short video. Hamas's prolonged incommunicado detention of Shalit is cruel and inhuman and may amount to torture, Human Rights Watch said.

"Hamas's cruel treatment of Shalit causes him and his family needless suffering," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Regardless of Hamas's grievances against Israel, there are no grounds to cut Shalit off completely from his family."

On June 11, the Hamas politburo deputy, Mousa Abu Marzouk, released a statement rejecting any outside access to Shalit. Doing so, the statement said, could reveal his location to Israel, which it contended would bomb the area if it could not secure his release. The previous month, Hamas officials gave the same rationale for denying a Human Rights Watch request to visit Shalit.

Hamas officials say that they will release Shalit only in return for Israel's release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including persons whom Israeli courts have convicted of deadly attacks on civilians. Repeated efforts at negotiating prisoner exchanges between Hamas and Israel, including through foreign negotiators, have so far failed. On April 25, in an apparent attempt to increase pressure on Israel, Hamas's armed wing released a computer-generated video depicting Shalit's father's efforts to secure his release. In one sequence, Shalit's father watches a coffin, supposedly his son's, as it leaves Gaza, before the video ends with the words, "There is still hope."

On June 25, 2006, Palestinian militants based in the Gaza Strip raided an Israel Defense Forces post inside Israel, near the Kerem Shalom crossing, killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing Shalit, who then held the rank of corporal. Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, has held him captive ever since. According to news reports, Shalit received medical treatment for a shoulder injury and a broken hand sustained during the attack.

The laws of war prohibit cruel and inhuman treatment of persons in custody. They also require a party to a conflict to permit persons deprived of their liberty to correspond with their families and not to refuse arbitrarily a request by the ICRC to visit detainees.

Incommunicado detention arises when detainees are denied access to anyone outside the place of detention. In 2003, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolved that "prolonged incommunicado detention ... can in itself constitute a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or even torture." The UN Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts, ruled in the case of El-Megreisi v. Libya that prolonged incommunicado detention of more than three years amounted to torture and cruel and inhuman treatment.

Israel for its part has prevented Palestinian detainees from Gaza from having family visits. In June 2007, Israel suspended an ICRC-run program allowing family visits, as required by the Geneva Conventions, for 900 Palestinians from Gaza who are detained in Israeli prisons. The families are allowed to exchange letters. Israel imposed the prison-visit ban after Hamas's takeover of the territory on June 15, 2007, when it also tightened the blockade of Gaza, a form of unlawful collective punishment against Gaza's civilians. Violations of the laws of war by one party to a conflict do not justify violations by the other.

Israeli authorities have repeatedly detained Hamas members, including elected members of parliament, without charge in the West Bank in apparent retaliation for Shalit's detention.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
In May, Israeli authorities announced plans to deport from East Jerusalem to Gaza four Hamas lawmakers who were arrested four days after Shalit's capture, convicted by a military court of membership in a banned organization and sentenced to different terms of between two and four years in prison. The residency permits for the men - Mohammed Abu Tair, Ahmed 'Atwan, Mohammed Toutah, and Khaled Abu 'Arafa - were revoked in 2006. The Associated Press reported that Israel could begin to deport the men as early as June 25.

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