Palestine: impunity for arbitrary arrests, torture

Human Rights Watch  /  June 30, 2022

PA, Hamas abuse still systemic a year after prominent critic beaten to death.

Jerusalem – Palestinian authorities are systematically mistreating and torturing Palestinians in detention, including critics and opponents, Human Rights Watch said today in a parallel report submitted jointly to the United Nations Committee Against Torture with the Palestinian rights group Lawyers for Justice. Torture, both by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas authorities in Gaza, may amount to crimes against humanity, given its systematic nature over many years.

More than a year after the PA beat to death prominent activist and critic Nizar Banat while he was in custody and violently dispersed people demanding justice for his death, including rounding up scores for peaceful protesting, no one has been held to account. Prosecutors brought charges against 14 accused security officers, but critics say the authorities are moving too slowly and are biased, including in a June 21 decision by military prosecutors to release the accused for 12 days.

“More than a year after beating to death Nizar Banat, the Palestinian Authority continues to arrest and torture critics and opponents,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “Systematic abuse by the PA and Hamas forms a critical part of the repression of the Palestinian people.”

In light of this pattern of abuse, other countries should cut assistance to abusive Palestinian security forces, including the PA police who played a central part in recent repression. The International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor should investigate and prosecute people credibly implicated in these grave abuses.

In the early morning on June 24, 2021, more than a dozen PA Preventive Security forces, which monitor political activities and threats to the authorities domestically, arrested and violently assaulted Banat. He was a well-known critic whom the PA had previously detained for his activism and who planned to run on an independent slate during Palestinian Legislative elections in 2021 before they were postponed.

He died in custody, suffocating when his lungs filled with blood and secretions, an autopsy concluded. A March 2022 joint report by the Palestinian statutory watchdog, the Independent Commission Human Rights (ICHR), and the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq, found that the excessive use of force by PA security forces caused Banat’s death.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh formed an official committee to investigate the death, but its report, submitted five days later in June 2021, has not been made public. The trial against those accused of participating in Banat’s death is ongoing. The Banat family announced a boycott of proceedings in May, citing concerns including granting privileges to the defendants, such as allowing them out of prison to visit family without a court order.

In the months that followed Banat’s death, PA police forces violently dispersed popular protests demanding justice and rounded up scores of people for peacefully protesting. Jehad Abdo, 54, told Human Rights Watch that PA police officers in civilian clothes detained him in August 2021 while he was on his way to a protest. Prosecutors charged him with insulting “higher authorities” and “unlawful assembly,” charges that effectively criminalize peaceful expression and assembly, and released him four days later with charges outstanding.

Hamza Zbeidat, 38, told Human Rights Watch that PA police forces also arrested him as he arrived at a planned August 2021 protest about Banat’s case. Prosecutors later charged Zbeidat with insulting “higher authorities,” “unlawful assembly,” and inciting “sectarian strife.” He said he spent three nights in an overcrowded, tiny cell without proper ventilation and tested positive for Covid-19 several days after his release with charges outstanding.

Fakhri Jaradat, 53, said that PA police forces arrested him at his home on two separate occasions in July 2021 after he participated in Banat-related demonstrations and questioned him about his Facebook posts, one of which called on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to “leave, leave.” Prosecutors also charged him with insulting “higher authorities,” “unlawful assembly,” and inciting “sectarian strife,” detaining him for about a week total between the two arrests before releasing him with charges outstanding.

Fadi Quran, 34, said that PA police forces detained him in August 2021 as he walked in central Ramallah near the site of a planned protest he intended to participate in, but which security forces had blocked from taking place. He said that the police questioned him about Palestinian flags he carried and about Facebook posts, including one criticizing the delay of PA elections and President Abbas’ rule, and released him after two days of detention without charge.

The death in custody of Banat and rounding up of demonstrators in the weeks that followed reflects the Palestinian authorities’ systematic practice of arbitrary arrest and torture with impunity, Human Rights Watch said. PA and Hamas security forces routinely taunt and threaten detainees, use solitary confinement and beatings, including whipping their feet, and force detainees into painful stress positions for prolonged periods, including hoisting their arms behind their backs with cables or rope, to punish and intimidate critics and opponents and elicit confessions, as Human Rights Watch and Lawyers for Justice lay out in their parallel report.  

The PA and Hamas have said that abuses amount to no more than isolated cases that are investigated and for which wrongdoers are held to account, but years of research by Human Rights Watch, including its 147-page 2018 report, “Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent,” contradict these claims. Palestinian authorities have consistently failed to hold security forces accountable, as documented in the parallel report.

In 2021, the ICHR received 252 complaints of torture and ill-treatment and 279 of arbitrary arrest against PA authorities in the West Bank and 193 complaints of torture and ill-treatment and 97 of arbitrary arrest against Hamas authorities in Gaza. Hamas authorities have also executed 28 people in Gaza since seizing political control in June 2007, in a context in which  due process violations, coercion, and torture are prevalent, and have summarily executed scores of other people without any judicial process, often on accusations of collaboration with Israel.

Palestinian authorities should abide by the international human rights treaties they have acceded to and end grave abuses and endemic impunity by holding those responsible to account. Five years after Palestine acceded to the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture, which requires establishing a “national preventative mechanism” to independently monitor detention centers including with surprise visits, President Abbas in May issued a decree establishing the National Commission Against Torture.

However, the decree sets out that the PA president will appoint commission members, who will be government employees, and that the commission will operate as a government body. That will strip the commission of much actual independence, as ICHR and a joint statement of 26 Palestinian civil society groups have noted. President Abbas should rescind the decree and put forward a new regulation that creates a fully independent body.

The parallel Human Rights Watch and Lawyers for Justice report also covers mistreatment and torture by Israeli authorities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and impunity for these abuses. Despite more than 1,300 complaints of torture filed with Israel’s Justice Ministry since 2001 stemming from acts allegedly carried out by Israeli authorities in Israel or the West Bank, including painful shackling, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme temperatures, these complaints have only resulted in two criminal investigations and no indictments over the past 20 years, according to the Israeli rights group Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

As part of its duties under the Convention Against Torture to “prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction,” the State of Palestine should cease all security coordination with the Israeli army that contributes to facilitating torture and other grave abuses, and stop handing over Palestinians, as long as there remains a real risk of torture and other prohibited ill-treatment for those handed over, Human Rights Watch said.

“Many governments say they want to support the rule of law in Palestine and yet year after year continue to fund police forces that actively undermine it,” Shakir said. “Purported concerns over the fragility of Palestinian institutions and other tired excuses should no longer stand in the way. Donor governments should cut ties to abusive Palestinian police and security forces and center their Palestine and Israel policies on human rights.”