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(Ramallah) – Palestinian Authority security forces have detained at least four West Bank students over the past six months, apparently for their affiliation with Hamas or political criticism. Two have alleged ill-treatment in detention.

“It is deeply worrying that students are being held by Palestinian forces for no apparent reason other than their connection to Hamas or their opinions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Palestinians should be able to express critical political opinions without being arrested or beaten.”

On April 25, 2015, Palestinian security officers arrested Jihad Salim, a student representative of a Hamas-affiliated student group at Birzeit University in Ramallah, following the group’s victory in Birzeit’s student council election on April 22, Salim told Human Rights Watch. The officers beat him and held him for about 24 hours, he said.

Security forces arrested a former student representative of the group, Ayman Abu Aram, on April 28, questioned him about his affiliation with Hamas, and held him for 24 hours, Anas Barghouti, an attorney representing him and other students told Human Rights Watch.

Palestinian Authorities arrested and detained or summoned for interrogation 25 students from Birzeit and other universities following the April 22 student council elections, Sahar Francis, director of the Palestinian prisoners’ rights organization Addameer, told Human Rights Watch.

Musab Zaloum, a student who represented Hamas in the annual debate leading up to the elections, told Human Rights Watch on April 30 that preventative security officers had raided his house at 11 p.m. on April 26, but he was not at home at the time. He said he has not been summoned or detained, but has been avoiding the main campus entrance and has not been sleeping in his home.

These latest cases follow the November 2014 arrest, alleged beating, and criminal charges against Ayman Mahariq, a journalism student at Al Quds University, for critical postings about Palestinian Authority forces on Facebook and the January 2015 arrest of Bara al-Qadi, a media student at Birzeit University, for criticism of a Palestinian Authority official on Facebook. Mahariq was released after 30 days and al-Qadi after 13 days.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch on May 1, the spokesman for Palestinian Authority Security Services in the West Bank, Adnan Al-Dimiri, acknowledged that there had been arrests but refused to indicate how many people had been held or to confirm specific cases. He denied that there was any political motivation.

“We never arrest people for their speech or for their political affiliations,” he said. “These people have been arrested for the criminal charge of incitement of sectarian violence and other criminal charges.”

However, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, the authorities have not made any concrete allegations or presented any evidence in the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch that the individuals arrested were involved in or advocated violence. Hamas has a military wing, which has carried out activities Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned, but it also has a large political wing, involvement in which does not amount to incitement to violence. In 2014, Hamas entered into an agreement with Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, to form a unity government, which, although functionally is still deeply divided, formally remains in place.

Palestinian authorities should investigate the alleged ill-treatment in detention of Salim and Mahariq, and hold any officers responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.

Salim, who spoke to Human Rights Watch on April 28, 2015, said he serves on the Birzeit University elections committee as a representative of the Islamic Wafaa’ Bloc, which won 26 of the student council’s 51 seats – the first time Hamas or an affiliated group has won a majority since 2006. He said that at about 6 p.m. on April 25, Palestinian Preventative Security forces forced him into a civilian car in front of the campus entrance. They took him to a Preventative Security office in Ramallah, where they beat him while interrogating him about the elections, he said.

“Two different interrogators came in,” he said. “They started cursing my mother, cursing my sisters, slapping me around. Then they punched me, while asking questions about how Hamas won the elections.”

He said the officers forced him to stand with his legs and arms spread apart, from 11 p.m. to 10:30 a.m., then continued the interrogation until they released him at about 5 p.m. They refused to give him food or water, Salim said.

Salim said that during the interrogation he heard officers deny, in a telephone call, that he was in their custody. The officers told Salim that the person calling was a representative of a human rights organization, and Human Rights Watch confirmed the call with the organization, which requested that its name not be published.

Preventative Security forces arrested Abu Aram on April 28, he and his attorney, Barghouti, told Human Rights Watch. Abu Aram is the former president of Birzeit’s student council and was a Hamas representative there but has graduated and is working as a photographer, they said.

Abu Aram said that the prosecutor asked him about his political affiliation and whether he had ever been to a Hamas protest, and Abu Aram responded that he had. The prosecutor then accused him of “sectarian incitement,” without specifying a basis for the charge, but did not formally charge him, and the security forces released Abu Aram after interrogating him for 24 hours, his attorney said.

Preventative security forces arrested Mahariq on November 21, 2014, and held him for 30 days. Three weeks into his detention, he was charged with “insulting public authorities” for two posts on Facebook, said Barghouti, who is also representing him.

Mahariq told Human Rights Watch that four plainclothes security officials approached him and asked him to come to the police station, where they beat him and showed him a printout of the Facebook posts. He said he has since deleted the posts, but both he and his lawyer said the posts said, “Down, down, with military rule!” and “Curse the sisters of the security forces.”

“The officers started hitting me, slapping me, kicking me, and punching my stomach,” he said. “The officers drew points on the wall and told me I can’t go off the points, and they drew a line on the floor where to put my legs; my legs were split because the points on the floor were very far apart.” The court has set his trial for June 8.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the charge sheet for al-Qadi, the student arrested in January 2015, which charges him with “insulting a public official” and specifies the basis for the charges is “insulting the Palestinian Authority and the security forces on social media websites.” Barghouti, who also represents al-Qadi, said Preventative Security forces held him for 10 days and intelligence officers held him for another three days.

The apparent offending post, from January 16, reads: “Jibril Rajoub (Abu Rami) should hand in his resignation as the president of the Sports Union after the shameful performance of the Palestine national [soccer] team and their 5-1 loss to Jordan, and give the position to someone more experienced in the field of sports, such as Captain Majid Faraj.” Rajoub leads the Palestinian Football Federation and is deputy secretary of the Fatah, the ruling party; until 2002, he headed the Preventative Security Forces in the West Bank. Faraj is the chief of the general intelligence service. Al-Qadi’s trial has been set for June 10.

In April 2014, Palestine acceded to core international human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that oblige the government to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and to investigate and punish abuses by security forces.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented abuses by Palestinian security forces, including credible allegations of torture and arrests of people identified as political opponents.

Since 2005, the United States has provided funding and training to Palestinian security forces, in coordination with other countries, through the Office of the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC). In 2014, the United States spent US$45 million to train and equip Palestinian Authority security forces.

“States that fund and train Palestinian security forces, including the United States, should use their influence to ensure that members of Palestinian security forces respect the human rights of the people they are meant to serve,” Whitson said.


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