To the Editors:
In its recent report on the Palestinian Authority, which was set up in 1994, Amnesty International finds that there has been a disturbing increase in human rights violations by the Authority during the past two years. That increase has taken place in an emerging atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Victims of brutal torture and other abuses are now afraid to speak out and give their names in the face of threats. This, in Amnesty International’s view, is a fearsome indictment of a system which ignores the people who complain of abuse and threatens them with reprisals.
In its report, Human Rights Abuses by the Palestinian Authority, Amnesty International describes the growing climate of fear in which journalists who report abuses are arrested and their newspapers closed down, and prominent human rights activists are harassed. Dr. Iyad al-Sarraj—a well-known leader of the citizens’ rights commission set up by President Yasser Arafat—has been arrested three times, beaten up, and brought to court on trumped-up charges. In view of such treatment, it is no wonder that people not internationally known are terrified of the security forces.
During the past two years, Amnesty International delegates, including medical personnel, visited the Palestinian Authority several times. In February 1996, the Secretary General of the organization, Pierre Sane, raised human rights issues with President Arafat and members of the Palestine Legislative Council.
In its report, Amnesty International documents human rights abuses committed by the ten or so Palestinian security services in the areas under the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction. Among them are: (1) arbitrary political arrest and prolonged detention without charge or trial of hundreds of suspected political opponents; (2)widespread use of torture and unlawful killings; and (3) the failure to adequately investigate abuses and the arrest of journalists and human rights defenders who denounce them. All these have contributed to the climate of disillusionment and fear.
In the context of international pressure by Israel and the United States to crack down on those responsible for violent attacks on Israeli citizens, mass detentions of suspected opponents of the peace process have been carried out. While the Palestinian Authority has a duty to bring to justice those who have committed violent acts, this should be done according to internationally recognized standards. There can be no justification for the use of torture and other serious human rights abuses.
With minimal accountability, the different police or security forces operate within and, on occasion, outside the areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. The different branches of the security forces appear, on many occasions, neither to coordinate nor even to communicate with each other. One former detainee told Amnesty International delegates: “I was arrested twice and held by four different police forces without charge or trial. I said to the police chief, ‘Where is the law?’ He said, ‘We are the law.”‘
The legal system has been ignored. Political detainees are held with no reference to any law. Orders have been given by the Palestinian High Court of Justice to release detainees kept in prison for months without being charged or tried. But those orders have been ignored. Few of those arrested by security forces for political reasons now make any effort to appoint a lawyer; they know it will make no difference. The few trials of political detainees that have taken place have been held before the State Security Court, instituted by decree of President Arafat in February 1995. In these courts, defendants are prosecuted, judged, and even defended by officers in the security forces. In Amnesty International’s view, this is a travesty of justice.
Torture of detainees has been widespread and, in some centers, systematic, especially after the mass political arrests in March. That political detainees are frequently held incommunicado for weeks, or even months, encourages torture. Methods used include beatings while suspended, burnings, and pouring molten plastic on the body. One detainee, whose body and feet still showed the torture scars, told Amnesty International:
The colonel said to the seven policemen, “Start.” They laid me on the floor and took my shoes off. Four of them had electric cables in their hands and they had taken off the plastic on one side so that the metal wires were exposed. They started to beat me on the feet and burned my skin with cigarettes.
Detainees in Gaza reported suffering prolonged sleep deprivation, while kept sitting or standing, heads covered with hoods—the same torture methods which have been used on Palestinians by Israeli security forces, even down to the use of loud music blaring out twenty-four hours a day as a form of sensory abuse.
At least nine people have died in the custody of the Palestinian security services in circumstances where torture appears to have caused or contributed to their deaths. In July and August 1996 three people died, apparently after torture. They include Mahmud Jumayel, who died on July 31 after having been suspended, beaten, and burned with electric elements by the naval police in Jneid Prison, Nablus. Three members of the naval police who were allegedly involved in torturing Mr. Jumayel were sentenced to up to fifteen years’ imprisonment after an unfair trial.
A few members of the security forces have been tried and convicted of human rights abuses. In the view of Amnesty International, their trials are a mockery. They seem designed to cover up abuses the security forces have committed, rather than to redress them.
Since August there have been some positive developments. They include an agreement signed between the Palestinian Authority and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) authorizing the ICRC to visit all detainees and detention centers. President Arafat has stated that he will not tolerate torture. But Amnesty International continues to receive reports of people being ill-treated or tortured, even in the offices of senior Palestinian security service officers.
In its report Amnesty International urges the Palestinian Authority to take swift and concrete action to ensure that the abuses it describes are ended. The organization recommends immediate access and appearance before a judge for all detainees; thorough, independent, and public inquiries into complaints of torture and other abuses; no impunity for those who carry out or order abuses; freedom for human rights defenders to carry out their activities in safety; the end both of prolonged political detention without trial and trials by State Security Courts. Amnesty International considers the role of state institutions such as the Legislative Council and human rights organizations to be of particular importance in ensuring that clear human rights guarantees are built into new legislation, which should be implemented without delay.
William F. Schulz
Amnesty International USA
New York City