(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should order a criminal investigation into the death of a man whose body was returned to his family five days after Hamas security officials arrested him, Human Rights Watch said today.
Relatives of ‘Adel Razeq, a 52-year-old father of nine, told Human Rights Watch that when security officials arrested him on April 14, 2011, they did not present a warrant and took him away under false pretenses. Security officials would not tell his family where he was being held. When his brother examined the body, it was badly bruised and appeared to have broken bones, he told Human Rights Watch. That, if true, would cast doubt on a Hamas Interior Ministry statement that Razeq died of an unspecified illness.
"The evidence raises concern that governmental authorities may have caused or contributed to the death of a man in their custody," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Hamas should order a fully independent criminal investigation."
Razeq's family told Human Rights Watch that Gaza government authorities refused their request to have an independent physician conduct an autopsy. The family stressed to Human Rights Watch that Razeq had been in good health when he was detained.
The Hamas Interior Ministry said in a statement on April 19 that Razeq was "suffering from illness" and had been transferred from a detention center to al-Shifa hospital for medical treatment on April 18, but that "his health condition deteriorated," and he died on April 19 "inside an internal security detention center." The statement did not explain why authorities had apparently transferred him from the hospital back to the detention center. The Interior Ministry statement said the body was "under forensic examination" by a "formal investigation committee" and the ministry had informed "all the concerned authorities, including the General Observer [of the ministry] and human rights organizations."
His family later buried Razeq's body. As of April 25, his family told Human Rights Watch that they had not yet received an autopsy or other forensic report into the death.
Relatives who were home at the time of the arrest told Human Rights Watch that late in the evening of April 14, two jeeps came to Razeq's home in the al-Alamy neighborhood of Jabalya, in northern Gaza, and that more than a dozen men, some in police uniforms and others in civilian clothes, entered the home. The relatives said that the security officials told Razeq that one of his sons had been involved in a family dispute and that he needed to come to the police station to pick him up. Razeq immediately left with the officials.
"Then half an hour later, they came back without him," said Razeq's daughter, Fadwa, 27. "They told me and my mother to go into one room of the house and to stay there until they left." The women complied, she said, while the men thoroughly searched their home. "We heard them talking as they took the pictures out of the picture frames, checked the sand around the home for footprints, even looked inside the flower pots," she said. "But they never told us why they arrested him or searched our house, or where they were holding him."
Razeq's family told Human Rights Watch that Hamas authorities did not contact them at all during his detention. "We tried to call officials, but no one would tell us where he was," his daughter Fadwa said. "We guessed he might be at the internal security compound near al-Ansar [in Gaza city] and we went there to check for him repeatedly." But officials refused to speak to the family or confirm that Razeq was detained there.
The first information the family received about Razeq after his detention was that he was dead. His son Ahmad, 26, said that at 8 a.m. on April 19, a member of their extended family received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a member of Islah Sheikh Radwan, a nongovernmental organization that deals with Gazan families involved in disputes or disagreements. "The caller said, ‘Your cousin is in the morgue at al-Shifa hospital.' That was all the information we got."
Razeq's brother, Mo'in, 46, told Human Rights Watch that Hamas officials allowed the family to collect the body on April 19 to wash and prepare it for burial in accordance with Islamic custom. "When I came to get the body I saw large bruises on his forehead and back of his head, his legs were blue, and the ribs on his back were broken," Mo'in said. "I said that we, the family, would refuse to bury the body unless an independent doctor examined the body and did an autopsy," but Hamas officials refused and the family relented and carried out the burial.
One week after learning of his death, family members say, they still do not know why the Hamas authorities detained Razeq. He had been employed as a member of the national security forces [al-amn al-watani] of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas's bitter rival, since 2005. Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, but the West Bank-based PA continues to transfer salary payments to its employees in Gaza.
On the evening that it announced Razeq's death, the Gaza Interior Ministry summoned Palestinian human rights organizations to a meeting. According to a statement later released by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which was among the groups in attendance, security officials stated at the meeting "that Razeq's death was due to natural circumstances, though they presented a medical report which indicated that there were bruises on his forehead. They added that on Friday, 14 April, Rezeq drank chlorine in the detention center. He was so taken to al-Shifa Hospital for medical observation and afterward was returned to the detention center."
"Rezeq's family have a right to know why he was arrested in the first place, what happened to him in custody and how he ended up dead, allegedly with bruises on his head and broken ribs," Stork said. "A thorough and independent criminal investigation is needed."