Skip to main content

Israel/Palestinian Authority: Theater Group Hit From Both Sides

‘Freedom Theater’ Staff Mistreated, Due Process Denied

(Jerusalem) – The Palestinian Authority and Israeli military authorities should both end abuses against members of the West Bank-based Freedom Theater, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) arrested the theater company’s co-founder, Zakaria Zubeidi, in May 2012, held him incommunicado, and allegedly tortured him. It arrested his defense lawyer in July. Israeli authorities arrested the company’s artistic director, Nabil al-Ra’ee, in June, held him incommunicado, and allegedly subjected him to physical and psychological ill-treatment that might have amounted to torture, Human Rights Watch said. Zubeidi’s lawyer and al-Ra’ee were recently released, but all three men still face charges. Al-Ra’ee’s next military court hearing is scheduled for July 29.

“Israel and the Palestinian Authority are trampling on the rights of Freedom Theater’s staff,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A theater should be able to offer critical and provocative work without fearing that its staff will be arrested and abused.”

The arbitrary arrests and detentions should cease, and allegations of mistreatment should be investigated, Human Rights Watch said.

The theater’s director and co-founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis, an Israeli citizen and activist, was killed in April 2011. Since the killing, Israeli occupation forces have repeatedly raided the theater and beaten and arbitrarily arrested employees. Israeli authorities have said that they suspect theater staff of involvement in Mer-Khamis’s killing, but have not charged anyone with the crime. The PA appears to be abusing the theater’s staff because of the company’s criticisms of the PA’s rule.

The productions of the Freedom Theater, based in Jenin, have criticized the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and abuses by both Israel and the PA in the territory. Some staff and acting students are former members of Palestinian armed groups who renounced violence in favor of nonviolent opposition to Israeli and PA policies.

Palestinian Authority Abuses

Palestinian police arrested Zubeidi, the theater’s co-founder, on May 13 amid a wave of about 150 arrests after unidentified people fired bullets at the home of the Palestinian governor of Jenin, in the northern West Bank, on May 2. Zubeidi’s brother, Abed Zubeidi, told Human Rights Watch that police had arrested and abused Zubeidi at the Jenin police station after he responded to a police request to help with an unrelated investigation.

“Zakaria said they tied his hands behind his back and pushed him down a flight of stairs,” Abed Zubeidi said. Police transferred Zakaria Zubeidi to Jericho later that day, where he has been held in a military Preventive Security detention facility.

The PA prosecutor denied Zubeidi access to his lawyer for more than 15 days, his brother told Human Rights Watch. Then, except during judicial hearings, he was able to meet with his lawyer, Farid Hawwash, only once, briefly, when Zubeidi signed documents granting Hawwash power of attorney in his case, Hawwash said. Officials at the detention facility repeatedly denied access to Zubeidi’s family and have since allowed him to receive visitors once in early July and again on July 19, family and theater staff told Human Rights Watch.

Zubeidi told his family and colleagues that officials at the Preventive Security detention facility had kept him in solitary confinement during his first 50 days there. During Zubeidi’s interrogation, officials forced him to drink water from a toilet, he said. The jailers repeatedly tied his arms together and raised them in a painful elevated position for two days at a time, requiring him to stand and preventing him from sleeping. They also tied him to an iron door outside in the heat of the day.

Abed Zubeidi also said that his brother has been denied access to newspapers, television, or other information sources. The officials demanded that Zubeidi tell them the whereabouts of “50 guns” that members of Palestinian armed groups had held during the second Palestinian popular uprising, or intifada. Zubeidi told them that Israeli forces had confiscated the guns years ago, his family and theater staff said.

Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the allegations but has previously documented the torture and ill-treatment of detainees at the Preventive Security facility in Jericho, where Zubeidi is being held. The Independent Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian human rights ombudsman, has submitted scores of affidavits to the PA regarding the alleged torture of people detained in the Jenin-centered mass arrests since May.

Palestinian civilian courts repeatedly extended Zubeidi’s detention without charge for 15-day periods. On June 26, the prosecutor informed his lawyer that his case had been transferred from the civilian to the military judiciary for further investigation, and he was denied access to his lawyer, as well as several family members and theater colleagues who had driven to Jericho to attend a hearing. After Zubeidi’s lawyer challenged the military’s jurisdiction, on July 7, Zubeidi’s case was transferred back to the civilian judiciary, where he has been charged with “assisting an attempted murder,” his lawyer said.

On July 12, Preventive Security officials arrested Hawwash, Zubeidi’s lawyer, at his home in Jenin, after he criticized the security agency in a hearing earlier that day in Jericho.

“I said that the Preventive Security was acting like a mafia and telling the prosecution what to do,” Hawwash told Human Rights Watch. “So the prosecutor charged me with insulting the prosecution and insulting Preventive Security.”

Hawwash and his brother separately told Human Rights Watch that the security forces did not show them a warrant for the arrest. The prosecutor’s office denied Hawwash access to his lawyer until a court hearing on July 15 and did not allow him to call his family until July 16, family members said.

Hawwash told Human Rights Watch that he was detained alone in an unhygienic cell but that he was not otherwise mistreated. He was released on bail of 1,000 Jordanian dinars (US$1,400) on July 18. The case against him is ongoing.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provides that:

Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; … and (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution … for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties … Lawyers shall enjoy civil and penal immunity for relevant statements made in good faith in written or oral pleadings or in their professional appearances before a court.

Zubeidi is a former member of a Palestinian armed group who had publicly renounced violence when he co-founded the Freedom Theater with Mer-Khamis in 2006. In 2007, the Israeli prime minister’s office “amnestied” Zubeidi, on condition that he not travel outside the Jenin district.

In August 2009 the Palestinian Authority Interior Ministry responded to the deaths in custody of four detainees by issuing Decision No. 149, which prohibits Preventive Security officials from “taking part in any kind of torture.” Officials stated that 43 security service officials, including civil police, had been disciplined for abuses, but the officials did not publish any further information. In 2011, the Independent Commission for Human Rights documented 112 complaints of torture and ill-treatment allegedly by PA security forces, including Preventive Security officials. Human Rights Watch is not aware that any Palestinian security official has been convicted of abuses against detainees.

Western governments, primarily the United States and United Kingdom, have provided direct funding to the Palestinian Authority security services, including the Preventive Security agency, and foreign governments, including the European Union, have provided general budgetary support that the PA  uses to pay security officers’ salaries, according to international news reports and leaked diplomatic cables. Governments that fund the security forces should condition their support on the Palestinian Authority meeting basic rights benchmarks including an end to impunity for abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Palestinian Authority’s mistreatment of Zubeidi and his lawyer is just the latest in a string of serious abuses in Preventive Security detention facilities,” Stork said. “Foreign funders of Palestinian Authority security services should apply meaningful pressure to reverse this record of torture and ill-treatment.”

Israeli Military Abuses

Israeli security officials said that the PA was in charge of investigating the killing of Mer-Khamis, whom an unknown attacker shot at close range while he was driving with his infant son and a baby-sitter near the theater. Israeli soldiers raided the Freedom Theater on July 27, 2011, and arrested the facilities manager, Adnan Naghnaghiye, and the chairman of the theater’s board, Bilaal Saadi. The Israeli military detained the two men without charge for nearly a month, then released them on August 23.

On August 22, Israeli forces arrested Mohammed Naghnaghiye, the theater security guard, at his home, allegedly beat him and ransacked his home, and released him without charge after a few days, theater staff said. Theater staff described other arrests of acting students and staff in August and December 2011, although some took place in the course of larger military actions and it was not clear if theater staff were specifically targeted. Security forces summoned many of the theater’s staff for questioning regarding Mer-Khamis’s death in May 2012, staff said.

On June 6, 2012, the Israeli military arrested al-Ra’ee, the theater’s artistic director, at his home in Jenin. His wife, Micaela Miranda, said in a statement that he had previously cooperated with Israeli summons to appear for questioning and that Israeli forces initially did not inform her of the reasons for his arrest or his whereabouts in detention.

Israeli authorities sent al-Ra’ee first to the Jalameh (Kishon) detention facility in Israel, then to detention facilities in Ashkelon, and subsequently back to Jalameh, Al-Ra’ee and his lawyer, Smadar Ben-Natan told Human Rights Watch. Al-Ra’ee was denied access to his family and lawyer for almost two weeks, until the prosecution lifted the denial order on July 19, following a petition by Ben-Natan to Israel’s High Court.

Israeli interrogators initially claimed they were investigating al-Ra’ee in connection with the killing of Mer-Khamis, he told Human Rights Watch. Al-Ra’ee said that during his detention, Israeli interrogators at the Jalameh facility blindfolded him and handcuffed him to a chair:

They gave me two polygraph tests, asking me about Juliano’s murder, and then they said, “You’re hiding something from us,” and they put me in the chair. They kept me in the chair for almost 48 hours. I would ask to go to the toilet, and then three hours later someone would come and say, “Now you can go.”

Interrogators repeatedly told al-Ra’ee that if he didn’t cooperate, “I would spend the rest of my life in jail and never see my daughter again,” he said. On several occasions, “six or seven interrogators would come into my room and question me at the same time. Some were standing in front, some behind me, asking different questions, and of course I was stressed because I could not answer them all. But I was clear that I had nothing to do with Juliano’s killing, or any involvement with weapons or armed groups. My only involvement is with theater.”

On June 28, after the prosecution had not brought charges or new evidence against al-Ra’ee following 22 days of detention and interrogation, the military court at Jalameh ordered al-Ra’ee’s release on bail and temporary house arrest. However, the court delayed his release to enable the prosecution to file an appeal to extend his detention. On July 2, the military court of appeal in Ofer accepted the prosecution’s appeal to extend his detention until July 4. On July 4 the military prosecutor charged al-Ra’ee with possessing a weapon and “providing shelter” to Zubeidi, whom the prosecutor claimed was “a wanted person.”

The prosecution’s sole evidence for the weapons charge appears to be al-Ra’ee’s statement to interrogators that he had once held a gun, not his own, for a few minutes, and fired a pistol in celebration at a New Year’s party, his lawyer said. The charge of “providing shelter” was issued under an extraordinarily broad Israeli military order that criminalizes assisting any person against whom “there is a reasonable basis to suspect” that he “committed an offense under the security legislation or who is or was engaged in any action aimed at harming public peace, the well-being of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and the maintenance of public order.”

Israeli military prosecutors have not charged Zubeidi with any crime and had not stated that they were seeking to take him into custody. The “support” that al-Ra’ee allegedly provided includes buying cigarettes for Zubeidi, his neighbor, and giving him car rides in Jenin on various occasions since 2009. If convicted under the Order Regarding Security Provisions, al-Ra’ee could face five years in prison on the provision of shelter charge and up to life in prison for the weapons charge.

On July 7, the Israeli military released al-Ra’ee from the Jalameh detention facility on bail of 3,000 shekels (US$800). He had been directing a play, “The Caretaker,” which was scheduled to open on July 1 but has been indefinitely delayed, theater staff said.

Al-Ra’ee’s lawyer said that at his July 29 hearing before the Salem military court, she would petition the court to conduct a “trial within the trial” procedure to examine his alleged mistreatment, and to quash the charges against him.

The military court should thoroughly examine al-Ra’ee’s claims of coercive interrogation, and Israeli authorities should appropriately discipline or prosecute any officials responsible, Human Rights Watch said. In another case, an Israeli military court excluded from evidence a Palestinian child’s statement on the grounds that interrogators obtained it coercively.

The Freedom Theater’s artistic manager, Gary English, a US citizen, told Human Rights Watch that he recently briefed US State Department officials about the cases against al-Ra’ee and Zubeidi. Foreign donors to Israel’s military should use their leverage to press for an end to abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Israeli military appears determined to convict Nabil al-Ra’ee of something, even if it means bringing dubious charges and violating his basic rights,” Stork said. “This case has gone on far too long for the US, which claims to support the rule of law in the West Bank, to remain silent.” 

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.