Analysis: PA and Hamas guilty of “systematic” torture, says human rights group

The “machineries of repression” utilised by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to crush their opponents and silence dissenters has been detailed in a shocking new report by Human Rights Watch.

A two-year investigation by HRW, Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent, accuses both the PA, which runs the West Bank, and Gaza’s Islamist rulers, Hamas, of engaging in “systematic” torture and arbitrary arrests in order to stifle social media criticism, independent journalism and peaceful protests. The use of torture is widespread and deliberate enough to constitute “governmental policy”, HRW alleges.

“Relying primarily on overly broad laws that criminalise activity such as causing ‘sectarian strife’ or insulting ‘higher authorities,’ the PA and Hamas use detention to punish critics and deter them and others from further activism,” the report suggests. “In detention, security forces routinely taunt, threaten, beat, and force detainees into painful stress positions for hours at a time.”

HRW, a US-based human rights group, examined 86 cases in both the West Bank and Gaza and interviewed 147 people, examined medical reports, and photographic and video evidence.

As well as being bound by international legal standards, the Palestinian Basic Law explicitly upholds the “right [of a person] to publish his opinion orally, in writing, or in any form of art, or through any other form of expression” and restricts authorities from arbitrarily arresting and torturing detainees.

But, HRW charges, “arrests for nonviolent speech acts constitute serious violations of international human rights law, in contravention of legal obligations imposed through Palestine’s accession to major international human rights treaties over the last five years”.

It further warns that torture practiced by both the PA and Hamas may amount to “a crime against humanity, given its systematic practice over many years”. HRW implicates Hamas’ Internal Security branch and the PA’s Preventive Security, Intelligence Services, and Joint Security Committee.

HRW accuses both Hamas and the PA of attempting to quash dissent, arbitrarily arresting individuals and relying on “dubious or broadly worded charges to justify detaining them and to pressure them to stop their activities”. “While the specifics differ between the West Bank and Gaza, the result in both places is shrinking space for free speech, association, and assembly,” the report argues.

Both the PA and Hamas are found by HRW to take action against the peaceful activities of their political opponents. The PA is said to be increasingly using a form of administrative detention which, HRW claims, is not set out in the Palestinian criminal procedures law.

Dozens of arrests are also said to have taken place by both the authorities in Gaza and Ramallah in attempt to stifle criticism of their rule on social media. HRW cites a number of cases, including that of an activist, Issa Amro, who was detained by the PA security forces in Hebron in September 2017, one hour after he criticised the detention of a journalist on Facebook and called on the Mahmoud Abbas’ administration to respect free expression. Amro was held for a week, accused of planning to lead a coup. The charges filed against him on the basis of his post included creating “sectarian strife,” insulting “higher authorities,” and endangering “the public order of the state.”

Similarly, in Gaza Hamas police detained a 28-year-old social worker in April 2017, after he posted on Facebook an excerpt from a book by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani. He was interrogated about what other books he had read. The charges against him included “offending religious feelings”. He was released only after he signed a commitment not to “misuse social media”.

HRW believes that “vague language” in sections of the Penal Code and the Electronic Crimes Law, which was issued in 2017 and amended in 2018, empower authorities with “vast authority to monitor and restrict online activity”. This, the group argues, makes it difficult for people to judge “what type of expression constitutes a crime”.

HRW also provides evidence of the intimidation and targeting of journalists in the West Bank and Gaza. Journalist Amer Balousha was held for 15 days in July 2017 after a Facebook post that asked, “do your children [referring to Hamas leaders] sleep on the floor like ours do”. Balousha was told he was a “source of sedition,” and allegedly warned “it’s forbidden to write against Hamas, we will shoot you”. He was charged with the “misuse of technology.”

A month earlier, a Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation reporter, Fouad Jarada, was arrested by police in Gaza and questioned about a string of critical news reports and a Facebook post critical of Qatar, which was then an ally of Hamas. Hamas later arrested his cousin and held them both for over two months, before charging them in military court with “harming revolutionary unity”. In response, the PA detained five West Bank journalists thought to be sympathetic to Hamas, with one being told that his fate was dependent on that of Jarada. The day after Jarada’s release, the PA freed the five journalists.

Peaceful demonstrations – such as those which broke out in January 2017 in Gaza about the lack of electricity – are also frequently prevented by the PA and Hamas, with both ringleaders and those attempting to participate detained by their respective security forces.

It is, however, the allegations of “routine” mistreatment and torture of those in custody in the West Bank and Gaza – in particular in Hamas’ Internal Security custody in Gaza and in the PA’s Intelligence, Preventive Security, and Joint Security Committee detention facilities in Jericho – which are most shocking.

“The habitual, deliberate, widely known use of torture, using similar tactics over years with no action taken by senior officials in either authority to stop these abuses, make these practices systematic,” argues HRW. “They also indicate that torture is governmental policy for both the PA and Hamas.”

Positional abuse or “shabeh” is the most commonly deployed by both the PA and Hamas. Although its use was denied by Ramallah and Hamas, HRW says that “scores of detainees” provided them with evidence that officers had placed them in “painful stress positions for many hours at a time, using a mix of techniques that often left little or no trace on the body”.

Again, the report documents individual cases of torture involving journalists, student activists and others. Some of those named are as young as 17.

“Palestinian forces in both the West Bank and Gaza,” says HRW, “regularly use threats of violence, taunts, solitary confinement, and beatings, including lashing and whipping of the feet of detainees, to elicit confessions, punish, and intimidate activists.”

While Palestine acceded to the Convention Against Torture in December 2017, HRW argues that external oversight designed to stamp out the practices it details – which should have been toughened following accession to the treaty – do not appear have the desired effect. (Hamas told HRW it was committed to implementing the provisions of international treaties ratified by the PA). The group says it does not know of a single case where members of either the PA or Hamas security forces have been convicted or arbitrarily arresting or mistreating those in custody. Hundreds of complaints filed by citizens and human rights groups do not appear to have led to any action in the vast majority of cases.

HRW calls for both Hamas and the PA to implement and uphold the treaties against torture Palestine has signed up to, and urges a renewed commitment by both authorities.

President Abbas, it says, should “publicly pledge to end arbitrary arrests, torture, and impunity for security forces and empower a credible, independent governmental body to inspect places of detention and investigate and prosecute allegations of wrongdoing”. HRW further urges that prosecutors halt charging defendants under “vaguely worded” penal code sections which are used to “carry out arrests based on peaceful criticism of authorities”. The PA’s security forces should “stop arresting, detaining, and charging persons for nonviolent dissent”.

Hamas should similarly pledge to end arbitrary arrest and torture, argues HRW, and establish some form of oversight over its detention practices. It also urges prosecutors to end the practice of filing charges such as “harming revolutionary unity” or “misuse of technology,” to prosecute individuals engaging in nonviolent critical speech. Hamas is told it should investigate in “a thorough, impartial, and timely manner” all allegations of abuse, and prosecute members of security forces where evidence of their responsibility is obtained.