(Jerusalem) - The Palestinian Authority (PA) should release and ensure the safety of a man detained without charge for more than a month for allegedly criticizing Islam online, Human Rights Watch said today.

Palestinian General Intelligence Service agents arrested the man, Walid Hasayin, on October 31, 2010, on suspicion of posting messages on Facebook and on blogs that criticized Islam and other faiths. Hasayin has been investigated by the military judiciary but has not been charged with any crime.

"The Palestinian authorities' claim that Hasayin offended Muslims is no excuse for arbitrarily detaining him," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Palestinian judiciary should demonstrate its integrity by protecting the right to free expression and ordering Hasayin's release and his safety."

Hasayin, 26, was arrested at an internet café in the West Bank city of Qalqilya, where he allegedly wrote blogs advocating atheism and posted comments and images that satirized religious beliefs on a Facebook group page, said Lt.-Gen. Ahmad Mbayyad, the head of the PA's military judiciary.

Lieutenant-General Mbayyad told Human Rights Watch on November 24 that the military general prosecutor in Qalqilya suspected that Hasayin was responsible for the blog and the Facebook pages, and asked the General Intelligence office there to investigate.

"The general prosecutor was offended by the blog and began to follow the case, and in the end he and General Intelligence officers caught Hasayin red-handed in the internet café and arrested him," Lieutenant-General Mbayyad said. He said the military judiciary was exercising jurisdiction over Hasayin, a civilian, "only by coincidence, because the military prosecutor opened the case. But we have completed [investigating] Hasayin's file and will transfer it to the civilian attorney general soon."

The general prosecutor of the PA's civilian judiciary, Ahmad Mughanni, told Human Rights Watch on November 29 that Hasayin's file had not been transferred to his office and that he had received no information about the case.

Continuing to hold Hasayin without charge violates Palestinian law. The Palestinian code of criminal procedure (Law No. 3 of 2001) requires that a criminal suspect be charged or released within 72 hours. 

Offending religious belief is a crime under the civilian and military penal codes applied by the PA in the West Bank. Article 278 of the Jordanian (civil) Penal Code of 1964, in force in the West Bank, criminalizes the publication of a text, drawing, or symbol that "insults religious feeling or belief" and imposes a prison sentence of up to three months and a fine; article 330 of the Palestine Liberation Organization (military) Revolutionary Penal Code of 1979 contains virtually the same crime and punishment.

Laws that criminalize the peaceful criticism of religious beliefs violate international human rights standards, and the PA should ensure that it applies legislation in ways that are consistent with international protections of the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

It is not clear whether Hasayin has been allowed any visitors in General Intelligence custody in Qalqilya. Hasayin's father told Human Rights Watch that he did not wish to discuss the case. Lieutenant-General Mbayyad told Human Rights Watch that neither the family nor Hasayin himself had requested a defense attorney. The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), an official rights ombudsman created by Yasser Arafat in 1993, when he was the PA president, has in the past been able to visit detainees in PA prisons, but the General Intelligence Service has refused to allow the commission to visit prisons or to meet or share information since September, when it published a critical report about the security agency's responsibilities under PA legislation.

The New York Times reported on November 15 that intelligence officials in Qalqilya had said that Hasayin had not been allowed any visitors and was being detained partly for his own protection.

Hasayin was allegedly the author of the "Proud Atheist" and "Noor al-Aqel" blogs. An entry titled "Why I Left Islam," for example, states that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are "a pile of nonsense that compete with each other in terms of stupidity."

International and local media have reported popular outrage by Palestinians and others against Hasayin. Qalqilya residents reportedly demanded that he be publicly executed, and Arabic-language websites describing his alleged blog postings and his arrest were flooded with similarly threatening "talkbacks" from readers.

The PA is not a signatory to international human rights treaties, but has repeatedly pledged to uphold rights, including the right to free expression, which embraces even views that may be regarded as deeply offensive. The right to free expression may be restricted only as necessary to protect others' rights and reputations, national security or public order, or health or morals. Such restrictions must meet a strict test of justification. Criminalizing expression would be potentially justified only to restrict expression that posed a real and imminent risk of violence, discrimination, or hostility toward individuals - and not towards abstract entities such as religions.

If a person making an unpopular utterance risks violent retaliation, authorities have a duty to protect him, not to curtail the speech. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion has said that restrictions on "expression of opinion or dissent, religion, or belief" are not permissible.

Arbitrary detention is strictly prohibited under international law. This includes detention for criminal purposes when the detainee is not informed of the crime of which they are a suspect, when the detainee is not brought promptly before a judge, or when the law in question, on its face or as applied, violates international human rights law.

The United States donated $350 million for security and program assistance and an additional $150 million in direct budgetary support to the PA in fiscal 2010; the EU provided $315 million in assistance between January and October.

"Because a prosecutor was ‘offended,' the PA spent security and judicial resources to investigate and detain Hasayin in violation of both Palestinian and international law, and yet has not managed to charge him with any crime after more than a month," said Stork. "Foreign donors should be asking the PA why it is allocating resources to arbitrarily detain a man for peacefully expressing his views."