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(Ramallah) - The Palestinian Authority should open criminal investigations into members of its security services who apparently beat, kicked, and sexually molested protesters in Ramallah, Human Rights Watch said today. The US and European Union, which provide direct support to the Palestinian security services, should suspend such aid pending concrete steps by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to end a culture of impunity for security service abuses, including torture, Human Rights Watch said.

The violence on February 5, 2011, was the third instance since January 30 in which Palestinian security officials have harassed, interrogated, arbitrarily detained and viciously beat peaceful demonstrators.

"The PA has repeatedly responded to peaceful demonstrations with violent attacks, even as its security services enjoy impunity for systematic torture," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "What further evidence could the US and the EU possibly need that they should not hand over even more money to Palestinian security agencies until they are held accountable?"

Since January 2009 Palestinians have filed more than 360 complaints of torture against Palestinian security agencies with the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), the official ombudsman for human rights abuses by Palestinian authorities, according to information provided to Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch has recently documented several cases of alleged torture by PA security services. No PA security official has been convicted of torture or other abuses.

The February 5 demonstration in Ramallah's Manara Square began peacefully at 2 p.m. Hundreds of Palestinians filled the square, walked down a nearby street, and returned to the square. They chanted slogans supporting demonstrators in Egypt, as well as slogans implicitly critical of the PA. The chants included, "The people want an end to Oslo," referring to the agreement that created the PA and gave Israel exclusive control over 60 percent of the West Bank, and, "The people want an end to the division," referring to the conflict between the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza.

At approximately 4:45 p.m., 15 to 20 men in civilian clothes joined the demonstrators and began chanting slogans supporting the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Women demonstrators told Human Rights Watch that some of these men groped women in the crowd. When several women followed one of the men and tried to tell the police, he identified himself as a member of the National Security Forces, the PA's gendarmerie, and the police rebuffed them, the women told Human Rights Watch.

Other demonstrators said that some of the men in civilian clothes chanting slogans, as well as other plainclothes security officers in the crowd, surrounded individual demonstrators, beat them, and dragged them toward a nearby police station. Human Rights Watch viewed video recordings showing four such detentions and spoke to one man who described being dragged to the police station. He said police took him into custody at about 5:30 p.m., interrogated him, and transferred him to the General Intelligence Services. In all, the security services detained him for 14 hours. They would not let him call his family and gave him no food or water until 7 a.m.

The arrests and beatings of other demonstrators dispersed the crowd within half an hour, witnesses said.

The woman who tried to report the groping incident, who asked not to be identified, described what happened: "A bunch of guys came and started pushing us, and molesting and touching me and other girls, possibly as a provocation to the guys who were with us," the woman said. She followed one of the men as he walked away.

"My friends followed me," the woman said. "I went up to a policeman and pointed at the man and said what he did to me, and the man ran over to us and started yelling at me. He identified himself as a lieutenant from the National Security Forces and said to me, ‘You can do whatever you want [about complaining],' implying that he would not be punished," she said.

The policeman told her to go to the police station if she wished to file a complaint.

The Palestinian National Security Forces are responsible for crowd control and joint arrest operations with other security agencies. It is possible that the lieutenant, who was in civilian clothes at the time, was acting on his own rather than under orders. But his assertion that he was above the law by virtue of his role as a security official is disturbingly consistent with a climate of impunity for abuses by Palestinian security forces, Human Rights Watch said.

The woman went with a friend who had witnessed the harassment to the police station. She described the incident to three different police officers, none of whom took notes. One officer told the women to go out to the square, identify the man, and bring him back to the station, and told another policeman to escort the women. They did not see him in the crowd. When they returned to the station, the women saw the man, in a room where about 15 uniformed offices and three in civilian clothes were sitting:

The head of the police station brought us into this room with all these men and asked me to repeat my story. I refused to do so in that situation and we wanted to leave. I said I wanted to speak to my parents and a lawyer. We asked several times to leave but they had gathered around us. Finally I asked if we were under arrest, and the police chief said "no," and we were able to go.

The following day, the woman said, she complained to the Palestinian Military Intelligence agency and to the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, an official ombudsman.

Human Rights Watch separately interviewed the woman's friend, who confirmed the details of the episode.

"Palestinian police should be protecting peaceful demonstrations, not attacking and molesting civilians," Whitson said. "If these are the so-called ‘advances' in security that Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has been boasting about, his American and European patrons should be very worried."

Another demonstrator told Human Rights Watch that members of the group chanting for Abbas "surrounded me and dragged me out of the crowd, and then beat me on the head and neck and kicked me with their knees." They took him to the police station near the square.

The police interrogated him until midnight and accused him of tearing down a poster of Abbas, the man said.

"I didn't even see any such posters and denied defacing them," the man said.

Then two men who showed General Intelligence Service (GIS) identification took over. They questioned him for two hours at the police station before transferring him to two other GIS officials, who transferred him to a GIS facility in al-Bireh, near Ramallah. He was interrogated there for most of the rest of the night. Security officials confiscated his mobile phone, demanded his email and Facebook accounts and passwords, and denied his repeated requests to call his family, he said.

"They threatened to open a ‘political file' on me and present me to the military judiciary, and to beat me," he said.

Finally, he said, they told him to fill out forms, including one labeled, "Information about an Outside Source." He refused to sign, he said, fearing that they would use him as an informant, but eventually printed his name. They then released him, at around 8 a.m., he said. He later called one of the interrogators to say he renounced any obligation to serve as an informant. The following day, he said, he received a call from a blocked number.

"The voice on the phone said, ‘This is the last time you get away with it,' and hung up," the man said.

A man who showed him an intelligence service identification card later stopped his car, he said, and examined his ID, in what he believes was an attempt at intimidation.

"State-building should be about more than enhancing the skills of security forces that beat, harass, and intimidate Palestinian citizens," Whitson said. "The Palestinian Authority, and those who pay for its security forces, need to ensure that every Palestinian has access to swift, open, and effective justice when they are abused by those same forces."

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