(Jerusalem) – Hamas authorities in Gaza should investigate their military wing for the apparent torture and execution of Mahmoud Eshtewi. Eshtewi, a member of that military wing, was detained in secret locations for over a year.
Relatives of the victim said they and Eshtewi himself informed the most senior officials in Hamas’s civilian government that the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades was torturing Eshtewi, but officials did not intervene. Family members say one senior Hamas official endorsed the use of torture.
“The Eshtewi case raises serious questions about who’s in charge in Gaza, Hamas’s civilian authorities or its military,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine director. “Hamas should conduct a genuine investigation into Eshtewi’s death, prosecute those responsible, and shut down any units operating outside the law.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed five relatives, whose names are withheld to protect them, and reviewed photographs of Eshtewi’s body and handwritten notes apparently smuggled out of a detention center. Human Rights Watch also contacted Hamas and hospital officials, but they declined to comment. The evidence supports allegations that Qassam operatives tortured Eshtewi, trampled upon his rights to due process, and may have extrajudicially executed him.
Eshtewi, 34, a father of three from the Zaitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, served in the Qassam Brigades since 2000, most recently responsible for training fighters, his family said. After the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza, they said, Eshtewi expressed criticism of his commander’s performance. On January 21, 2015, after a meeting with commanders, including his supervisor, that was supposed to address his criticism, Eshtewi vanished. His family said they discovered that Qassam operatives held him in secret locations until February 7, when the group’s Military Information Department issued a statement saying it had executed Eshtewi after sentencing him to death “for behavioral and moral violations to which he confessed.”
Relatives said they were permitted to visit Eshtewi around nine times during his detention, once in a police facility in the Shati refugee camp, once in the family home, and about seven times in apartments belonging to the Qassam Brigades and undisclosed locations to which they were taken while blindfolded. Commanders of the Qassam Brigades initially told relatives that Eshtewi was accused of collaborating with Israel, embezzling money, and unspecified “moral violations.” Later they said that he had been cleared of collaboration and embezzlement.
According to all relatives, it was apparent that Qassam interrogators tortured Eshtewi. Two relatives first met with him in early February 2015, in the Shati police facility, about 18 days after he was detained. One present at the meeting reported that Eshtewi was unable to stand and could barely lift his hand for a handshake. His hands and wrists were swollen, the relative said, adding that three Qassam security officers were in the room during the visit, and that Eshtewi looked at the officers and waited for one to nod before answering any question. Eshtewi told his relatives, in the presence of the officers, that nothing was wrong, that he had felt unwell and was receiving medical treatment, and that there was “some truth” to the allegations against him.
During their third visit with Eshtewi, in March, a senior leader in Hamas’s political wing accompanied two relatives to an apartment in Gaza. A family member present said Eshtewi told them, in the presence of the official, that since the fourth day of his detention he had been tortured, including beatings and suspension from the ceiling. He said his commander had beaten him about 500 times with a hose, ordering him to confess. According to the relative, Eshtewi said he was as innocent as Kleenex tissue is white. The relative said that the senior Hamas official responded by saying that his interrogators should beat him in order to get to the truth.
That same month, three relatives visited Ismail Haniyeh, one of the most senior members of Hamas’s political wing in Gaza and the de facto prime minister. They said they told Haniyeh that Eshtewi was being tortured. They asked for Eshtewi to be charged in court, to see a lawyer the family had chosen, and to meet with a human rights organization to investigate the claims of torture. According to two of the relatives present, Haniyeh denied that Eshtewi was tortured and refused to allow outsiders access to him but said he would discuss the matter with Qassam commanders.
According to the family, in the ensuing months they received promises from Qassam commanders that Eshtewi would be released. On three occasions, during supervised visits with his family, Eshtewi managed to smuggle out handwritten notes about his treatment. One note, which he handed over during a visit in April, was addressed to his eldest brother, Hossam.
Human Rights Watch viewed the note, written without punctuation. It read: “My brother Hossam I was tortured with terrible torture they almost killed me until I confessed to them falsely and confessed doing things I never did any day of my life my brother I’m innocent”.
A second note, apparently signed by one of the Qassam commanders responsible for Eshtewi’s interrogation, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, read: “Believe me, you will not say the truth until the cement reaches your mouth,” an allusion to a form of torture that includes threatening to bury the victim alive in a concrete grave. The note is dated April 14, days after the commander had visited the family home with Eshtewi and promised that he would not suffer further torture. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the authenticity of either note.
The family met Haniyeh again in June and gave him a note that Eshtewi had smuggled out to them, together with a description of the torture they said their brother had undergone, including sleep deprivation, suspension, and beatings so severe he passed blood in his urine. Haniyeh again told family members he would look into the matter and update them in 10 days.
However, when relatives attempted to see Haniyeh again 10 days later, he refused to meet them. On July 2, dozens of extended family members held a protest outside Haniyeh’s house. Two relatives said that police arrived, beat at least four of them, and took at least five to a police compound. They were released after other relatives working in the security services intervened.
In October, Haniyeh agreed to meet Eshtewi’s mother and three additional relatives for the last time. Again, they pleaded for his release. Again, Haniyeh promised to look into the matter.
Family members said they last saw Eshtewi on August 10, when four were admitted to see him. He told them he would go on a hunger strike if not released.
Relatives say they were in touch with Qassam officials until the day Eshtewi was killed. They said they had even contacted the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, who lives in Qatar, through an intermediary, and that he had sent a message that “there would be a positive solution.” They said they left a meeting with Qassam commanders at approximately 2 a.m. on February 7. Two hours later, a journalist telephoned to tell them Eshtewi had been executed.
Eshtewi’s family told Human Rights Watch that they suspected Eshtewi had died, perhaps from the hunger strike, and was shot afterward to make it look like an execution. They based that on observations that his body was very thin and that there were few traces of blood in or around the bullet wounds on his chest or on the shirt he was wearing. They said that a doctor who viewed the body surmised that Eshtewi died of hunger. Relatives also told Human Rights Watch that, upon viewing the body, they saw that scarred into his arms and legs was the word “wronged [مظلوم]”, which Eshtewi had apparently cut into his body with a sharp implement.
Authorities allowed the family to view the body on February 7 and again on February 8. Relatives said they asked the government-run Shifa Hospital to perform an autopsy but their request was refused because they had no authorization from Hamas.
Human Rights Watch viewed five photographs showing a partial view of Eshtewi’s body and a photograph taken before his detention. The photos show three holes in the left side of his chest, evenly spaced in a triangle and consistent with bullet wounds. They show small amounts of blood on the torso of his white t-shirt, and bruises and wounds on his right wrist and left leg that could be burn marks. Eshtewi’s body appears thin, especially compared with his pre-detention photograph. Human Rights Watch was not able to determine the cause of his death.
Human Rights Watch contacted Hamas co-founder and senior official Mahmoud al-Zahar by telephone and asked him to respond to allegations that Eshtewi was tortured and to provide his account of the case. Zahar declined to comment. An official at Shifa Hospital also declined to comment.
Human Rights Watch has documented extrajudicial killings by Hamas’s military wing, most recently in August 2014, when armed men killed 25 people accused of collaborating with Israel. The Eshtewi case is unusual because the Qassam Brigades said they executed Eshtewi for “moral violations.” According to the Palestinian human rights group Al-Mezan, which has also called for an investigation into Eshtewi’s death, “moral” crimes often refer to sexual misconduct, but it is highly unusual for an armed group to execute one of its members for that reason.
Torture and other abuses of detainees are widespread in Gaza, as Human Rights Watch has documented in the past. The political wing of Hamas exercises de facto authority in Gaza.
A journalist in Gaza told Human Rights Watch that Hamas authorities contacted news organizations in Gaza and warned them not to report on the Eshtewi case.
The International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment forbids the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in all circumstances. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives detainees the right to come before a judge, to hear charges against them, and to have a fair, public and speedy trial.
The Palestinian Basic Law dictates that arrests and investigations can be carried out only through judicial order and that persons must be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The Palestinian Penal Procedures Law prohibits summary executions.
“Hamas authorities in Gaza bear responsibility for the treatment of all detainees, including those held by the military wing,” Bashi said. “If Eshtewi was suspected of a crime, he should have been allowed to confront those charges through a fair procedure in Gaza’s civilian courts.”