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(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should investigate claims that security officials tortured a blogger and activist and prosecute any officials responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. The blogger had called for demonstrations in favor of ending the split between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Hamas police and plainclothes security officials prevented a demonstration at the Unknown Soldier square in Gaza City on February 28, 2011, without giving any reason, and detained and tortured one of the organizers, Ahmad Arar. Arar, 31, gave Human Rights Watch a detailed accounted of the abuse he said he suffered, an attempt, he said, to make him confess to being a Palestinian Authority agent. Since late February, Hamas internal security officials have threatened, confiscated equipment from, and repeatedly questioned young activists trying to organize similar protests for March 15, the activists said.

"The Hamas government has shown time and again that it cares little about the rights of Palestinians who peacefully challenge its policies," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Hamas says it's fighting for liberation from occupation but is repressing people living under its control."

Other witnesses to the February 28 events told Human Rights Watch said that Hamas security officials threatened to assault journalists who tried to cover the protest and that they had assaulted a journalist trying to cover a similar demonstration on February 11.

Arar told Human Rights Watch that on February 6, he and others used social media networks, including Facebook, to issue a "Call for the Homeland" [nidaa al-watan] to end the division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and called for a demonstration on February 28. They notified the Hamas Interior Ministry, but received no reply. On February 14, police came to Arar's home and without providing a reason confiscated his ID card, passport, and mobile phone, which he says they have not returned.

A journalist who asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch that on February 28 at 9 a.m., protesters and journalists began to gather in Gaza City's Unknown Soldier square. About 50 people had arrived by 9:20, he said, when four police jeeps and a civilian car arrived.

At that point, Arar said, "a man in plain clothes came and said he was a police detective [mabahith], and that we should leave immediately."

"When I said we'd informed the Interior Ministry beforehand and were going to protest peacefully, he hit me in the face," Arar said. A policeman then hit Arar in the arm and face with his gun. "Then they pushed me into an unmarked car, kept beating me, and accused me of being a collaborator with the West Bank."

The journalist also saw Hamas police beating Arar and pushing him into the car. "Then the police told the journalists that we should leave and if any of us had taken any pictures they would break his camera," he said.

Police drove Arar, who was bleeding from his face and mouth, to a police station in the al-Ansar neighborhood, he said. "They forced me to take off my shirt, which was soaked with blood, and threw it away, but refused to take me to a hospital," Arar said. Half an hour later, police drove him to the police headquarters in Gaza City. Police there questioned him twice and took his photograph.

At 5 p.m. police drove him in a white jeep to the al-Abbas police station and put him in a room where another man, around 50 years old, was tied up in a painful position, a form of abusing detainees called shabeh.

"They didn't do anything to me but they were beating this man badly for the whole time I was there," Arar said.

At 10 p.m., police put Arar in a blue police jeep, stuffed a foul-smelling bag over his head, and drove him to an unknown location, apparently a jail. Arar said men in plainclothes removed the bag and questioned him again until midnight. They blindfolded him and moved him to a room with a cot, where he slept for three hours.

At approximately 8 a.m., a man in civilian clothes who called himself Abu Mohammed woke Arar, and interrogated and beat him, he said. Abu Mohammed demanded to know how much money the Palestinian Authority was paying Arar and the names of the other protest organizers. Arar said the interrogator insulted him and insulted his mother and other women he cared for, using explicit, sexual terms.

"Abu Mohammed told me, ‘We will torture you unless you tell us who is paying you in Ramallah.' I said, ‘[Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad sent me $1 million through Western Union,' and he laughed and said no, it was too much," Arar told Human Rights Watch. "Eventually I lied and told them that someone in the Youth and Sports Ministry had sent me $2,000." Several men in plainclothes then prepared statement that named a Palestinian Authority official. "I knew they were adding their own lies, but I signed the statement."

Arar said police and security officials did not give him any food for 24 hours. At around 11 a.m., an official gave him some pita bread, told him to sign a pledge saying that he would not take any action against the Hamas government, and said that they would release him.

"I asked them to delete my statement about being paid," Arar said. "I said I only signed the statement because I was afraid they were going to kill me. So they said they'd show me what they would do to me." Several men spread his legs apart and pushed him down to the floor, causing intense pain.

"They said they were going to divide me in two, and they brought out a wire that was electrified," Arar said. He retracted his denial of the statement. "Then Abu Mohammed took me to the al-Shifa bus stop and gave me 10 shekels. He said, ‘if anyone asks you what happened, tell them that we arrested you for sexually harassing a girl.'"

As a de facto governing authority, Hamas cannot be party to international human rights treaties, but it has publicly indicated it would respect international standards. The prohibition of torture is one of the most fundamental in international law. As defined in the Convention Against Torture, torture is intentionally inflicting severe pain or suffering for a prohibited purpose, such as to obtain a confession. International law requires investigation and prosecution of those against whom there is evidence they have committed torture, including those who gave the orders.

"It's particularly shameful that an organization whose own members have experienced torture and abuse are now doling out the same cruelty to other Palestinians," Whitson said. "Whatever political differences Hamas may have with Fatah, one thing they appear to share is disdain for the rights of Palestinians to assemble and express their views."

Hamas security officials have harassed other organizers of the protest scheduled for March 15. An organizer who asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch that he was summoned to the Internal Security Service facility in Gaza's al-Ansar neighborhood on February 16. Officials interrogated him for three hours, detained him in a bathroom for another seven, and threatened to attack him at the demonstration.

On February 22, the organizer said, 10 people who identified themselves as members of the Internal Security Services confiscated the laptops, mobile phones, and personal identification of four of the March 15 organizers at the Gallery Café in Gaza City, where journalists for the Palestine Today television channel were interviewing the organizers. One told Human Rights Watch that security officials summoned the four organizers for questioning the next day.

"They questioned me for three hours, asking me about the political affiliations of my brothers, cousins, friends, even my brother in law, and they kept asking who from the West Bank [i.e., the Palestinian Authority] was sponsoring us," he said. "They warned me that we would be responsible for any injuries at the March 15 event, and that the families of anyone killed could sue us."

One of the Palestine Today journalists who interviewed the organizers told Human Rights Watch that the officials demanded that he turn over the video recording and his camera and arrested him when he refused. They took him to a police station but released him within a short time after his station intervened, he said. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, an independent organization in Gaza, reported that officials summoned one of the organizers for further questioning on February 24 at the Internal Security facility before returning his laptop computer.

The organizer interrogated on February 22 and other March 15 organizers told Human Rights Watch that Hamas Internal Security Service had questioned them again on March 6.

Hamas security officials have prevented previous demonstrations against the Palestinian political "division" and beaten journalists trying to cover them. Shawky al-Farra, 41, a photographer and journalist for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, told Human Rights Watch that at around 12:30 p.m. on February 11, he was covering a demonstration in front of the Al-Sunna mosque in the city of Khan Yunis, in the middle of the Gaza Strip.

"People were responding to a call for demonstrations sent out by Facebook, called ‘The Revolution of Dignity,'" al-Farra said. "I started to take some photos, when 10 people from internal security surrounded me. I showed them my press card and loudly identified myself as the Deutsche Welle correspondent, but they took my camera and press card and started to beat and kick me, calling me a collaborator for the PA." Two uniformed policemen remonstrated with the security officers, who continued to beat him for a few minutes before stopping, al-Farra said.

He later complained to the Interior Ministry, which controls the internal security services, and on February 14 retrieved his camera and identity documents from the office of Ihab al-Ghussein, the ministry spokesman, where officials told him not to complain publicly, he said.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented several cases of abuses by Palestinian Authority security forces against peaceful protesters in recent months.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights grants everyone the right to peaceful assembly. It states that restrictions are only permissible on this right if they are implemented according to law, for a legitimate aim such as public safety, and the restriction is "necessary in democratic society" - i.e. is the least restrictive on the right possible.

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