Few things are more soothing on a hot summer’s day than fresh watermelon. On June 9, Palestinian journalist Sami al-Sai shared on Facebook a video about the sale of watermelons in the West Bank city of Tulkarm that were grown in Jericho. The video contained no apparent political content, but a Tulkarm community Facebook page where residents had posted about corruption and other scandals in the city, some critical of Palestinian Authority (PA) officials, then shared it. Less than an hour later, PA forces arrested al-Sai near where he had recorded the video.
More than two weeks later, al-Sai remains in detention. His lawyer, Ahmad Barham from Lawyers for Justice, told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors, in a June 11 court hearing to authorize al-Sai’s pretrial detention, asked only about his client’s involvement with the Facebook page. The official readout of the hearing from the court’s website, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, says authorities are investigating al-Sai on four preliminary charges: “slander” of the PA, “disparagement via the internet,” publishing information that constitutes “unlawful interference in the private or family life of individuals”, and “threatening or blackmailing” a person.
The charges, circumstances of his arrest, and question asked in the court hearing suggest that authorities are holding al-Sai over suspicions he is involved with the Facebook page, though Barham says his client denies having any ties.
The PA’s harassment of al-Sai over the years, including arrests in 2012 and 2014 for Facebook posts, provides plenty of reason for skepticism about the basis for his arrest. Following another arrest in 2017, PA officials tortured al-Sai, he alleges, including tying his hands behind his back with rope to the ceiling and slowly pulling the rope to apply pressure to his arms.
Israeli authorities in 2016 also detained al-Sai for more than eight months over Facebook posts, which a military court found amounted to “incitement” under military law.
Human Rights Watch has documented the systematic practice of PA forces arbitrarily arresting and torturing critics and opponents, including for peaceful expression. Data provided by the PA to Human Rights Watch indicates that, between January 1, 2018 and March 30, 2019, the PA detained 752 Palestinians over social media posts.
Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh vowed in a July 2019 meeting with Human Rights Watch that there would be “no arrests or persecution” of Palestinians for peaceful free expression. If he’s serious, he should start by releasing al-Sai from detention now.