(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip prevented Gazans from demonstrating in solidarity with protesters in Egypt, according to witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch. On January 31, 2011, police arbitrarily arrested six women and threatened to arrest another 20 people who responded to a call on Facebook for a demonstration as soon as they arrived at the park of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza City.

An eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that shortly after 2 p.m. on January 31, plainclothes detectives forced three women who intended to demonstrate into a civilian car and drove them away. Others who walked away from the planned demonstration were followed by a police detective on a motorcycle, who demanded that they turn over their ID cards and mobile phones. When they handed over their IDs but refused to surrender their phones, the detective called for support to arrest them, and the demonstrators fled, the witness said.

One of the women detained told Human Rights Watch that police women apprehended her and took her for questioning at the Gaza City police station, where she saw five other women being held pending interrogation after attending the planned demonstration. Police women told the detainees to sign pledges that they would not participate in demonstrations without first obtaining police permission and would respond to police summons at any time. Women police officers insulted demonstrators who were not wearing headscarves and questioned whether they were really Muslims, and slapped one demonstrator and pulled her hair, witnesses said. The women were later released. 

Under international human rights law, no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are strictly necessary and proportionate for national security, public safety, or public order.

 "The Hamas authorities should stop arbitrarily interfering with peaceful demonstrations about Egypt or anything else," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Police committing unlawful arrests and abusing demonstrators should be held to account."