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(Jerusalem) – Palestinian authorities have taken no action to investigate an assault by their security forces on April 12, 2014, but have brought charges against four victims, Human Rights Watch said today.

Multiple witnesses gave consistent accounts of the police using unnecessary and disproportionate force against two men who were involved in the peaceful protest at a theater in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and two other men and a woman who tried to help them. Police detained the four men overnight, and they were charged the next day with “disturbing the peace” and “provoking a riot,” and ordered to appear for a hearing on May 28.

“It’s absurd that the Palestinian justice system is prosecuting the victims of police brutality rather than their attackers,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Palestine should start living up to its human rights obligations by exonerating the victims and holding the police to account.”

The men’s arrests and prosecution violate their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

On April 2, Palestine acceded to core international human rights conventions that oblige the government to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and to investigate and punish abuses by security forces. Palestinian civil police forces in the West Bank, who receive training and other support from a European Union program, EUPOL-COPPS, have repeatedly used excessive force against demonstrators in Ramallah.

Shortly before a scheduled performance on April 12 in Ramallah’s Al-Kasaba Theatre by a dance troupe visiting from India, a political activist, Zeid Shuaibi, 25, stood up in the audience and criticized the event. Shuaibi works with the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, a group that advocates a cultural boycott of Israel by foreign artists. Fifteen other protesters were also in the audience. Shuaibi told the audience that the committee had asked the Palestinian Ministry of Culture to cancel the performance because the dance troupe had performed in Tel Aviv, and criticized the Culture Ministry for allowing the performance to proceed, he and several witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

For 10 to 15 minutes, several other protesters voiced similar criticisms. Some audience members not affiliated with the protest voiced their agreement and some walked out of the theater. Other audience members objected to the protesters’ speeches, but no one used insults, harsh language, or violence, witnesses said.
Shuaibi said that men in civilian clothes ordered him to leave, then were joined by a policeman who restrained him while the other men beat him. Three of Shuaibi’s friends who were in the audience, only one of whom said he was involved in the protest action, tried to accompany him and shouted at the security officials to stop beating him, whereupon the officials assaulted them as well, they said.

Police put the four men into one of the three police vehicles parked outside the theater, they said, and assaulted a woman who tried to accompany them to the police station. The woman, Dr. Dima Amin, 43, a gynecologist who is not affiliated with the boycott activists, told Human Rights Watch that she was attending the performance with her husband and 6-year-old daughter and that police assaulted her when she tried to intervene.

In a statement published on April 13, the Culture Ministry accused the protesters of “violence” and using “insulting language,” and said police removed them to maintain “order and public safety.” The participants and other witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed denied these claims. No violence or abusive language appears in two videos, viewed by Human Rights Watch, in which members of the audience and protesters filmed the incident on their mobile phones.

The four men said that the police drove them to the main Ramallah police station, where they saw several of the plain-clothes officers who had beaten them in the theater. For two hours, police officers refused to answer the men’s questions about whether they were under arrest and whether they had broken any laws. After midnight, the men said, the deputy director of the police detective unit told the men that they would be released if they signed pledges “not to violate Palestinian laws or participate in disobedience,” on pain of an unspecified fine. The men refused, seeing it as an admission of guilt, they said.

The police detained the men overnight and took them the next morning to Ramallah Magistrates Court, where a prosecutor charged the men with disturbing the peace and provoking a riot under the Jordanian Criminal Procedure Code, in force in the West Bank, according to the men and local news reports.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury.

“There was no apparent justification for Palestinian police to violently repress the protest at the Kasaba theater,” Stork said. “Foreign donors should make it clear that their support for the Palestinian police will not continue without accountability for such abuses.”

For the protesters’ detailed accounts, please see below.

Accounts of the Events at the Theater
Shuaibi described what happened after he stood up and spoke:

We didn’t have any posters or banners. I just said my piece, and some of the other activists also shouted out objections to the event. Then three or four men wearing civilian clothes came up to me and said, “You should stop this and tell the activists to leave.” I told them, “I don’t have the power to tell them that, but you can talk to me,” and one of them said, “I’ve wanted to beat you for a long time.”

They started grabbing at me, and a uniformed policeman came and put his arm around my neck, and they forced me down the stairs. I was saying that it wasn’t necessary, that I would leave without force, when one of the guys in civilian clothes punched me in the back of the head. So I shouted, “Stop hitting me,” and the policeman put me in a half-nelson. The plain-clothes guys started hitting and kicking me.

Fajr Harb, 32, an activist who participated in the protest and was standing next to Shuaibi in the audience, said:

One of the plain-clothes police said they were going to beat him up. We started walking down the stairs, trying to protect him, and right before we left the door, a security guy punched him, knocked his glasses off, and started kicking him. After that, they took us outside and kept beating us. I saw one security guy knock a video camera out of a journalist’s hands, and another guy grabbed a still camera from someone and took it away.

Fadi Quran, 26, a friend of Shuaibi’s who did not participate in the protest, said he observed security forces uttering threats as they entered the theater, and followed them inside. Quran, who works with Al-Haq, a Palestinian rights group, told Human Rights Watch that he was standing near the door of the theater when he heard a policeman say, ”We’re going to beat them up:”

The police got Zeid and started punching and kicking him and dragged him outside into the foyer. My friend Aboud went up and was telling them to stop, and they started pushing him down the stairs, hard. He has a bad leg injury and I was worried he would fall, so I went up and said, “Calm down, what are you doing,” and they started hitting me too, in my head, and kicked me in the back and legs, for about five minutes. In the foyer, a policeman was holding on to me and a guy in civilian clothes came up and punched me hard in the face. I saw a uniformed policeman holding Aboud and telling one of the plain-clothes guys, “Go on, hit him.”

Quran’s friend, Aboud Hemayel, said that he was not involved in the protest and stepped outside the theater to have a cigarette when Shuaibi began to speak:

Then I saw the security forces go inside, and I got worried they were going to do something [violent], so I went back in. As soon as I saw them hit Zeid I started shouting, “Don’t hit him, you don’t need to do this,” and they came after me. They punched me in the head and body and kicked me a lot. I tried to tell them that I had a leg injury but they didn’t hear me or didn’t care, they were just kicking and punching me everywhere.

Dr. Amin said:

The activists said it was not right to continue the concert because this dance group had done a show in Tel Aviv, and we agreed, my family and I, so we were going to leave. The [activists] were already leaving. Then at the door of the hall, the police started beating them. I couldn’t bear seeing this. So I went to the police car, and tried to talk to the police. I said it was unacceptable.

A policeman pushed me, and I tried to open the car door, to go with them and try to protect them. He pushed me again and called over a policewoman, and ordered her, “Pull her,” and she grabbed my right arm and pulled it toward her while twisting it. I thought it was going to break. I was shouting in pain, but she ignored me, and hit my face and pushed me hard onto the ground. I lost my glasses and my shoes. The car drove off, and people helped me up. At that moment I got a call from the hospital – it was 10 p.m. I had to run to perform an emergency Cesarean section, and it was very painful, my arm and leg really hurt. I had a lot of scratches in my neck.

Quran said:

[At the police station] I kept asking them, “Am I under arrest? What law did we violate?” and they refused to answer. In the meantime, they were trying to convince us to sign a pledge. They didn’t give it to us in written form, but described what it contained. We didn’t want to since it seemed like an admission of guilt and that they could use it against us in the future.

Shuaibi said the deputy director told the men that signing a pledge was not a legal procedure, “but it’s what we do in this police station.”

Police detained the men overnight without food in a cell Shuaibi called “filthy,” with about 15 criminal suspects, they said, and transferred them at 8:30 a.m. to a holding cell at the Ramallah Magistrates Court. At a hearing that ended at 2:30 p.m., a prosecutor charged the men with disturbing the peace and provoking a riot.

The men’s lawyer, Muhannad Karajah, told Human Rights Watch that he argued that the men had not violated any laws and that the protest was protected speech. The judge ordered the men’s release pending a hearing on May 28, and prohibited them from participating in similar demonstrations, on pain of a fine of 5,000 Jordanian dinars (about US$7,050). 

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