Palestinian Authority: Punish Imam’s Death in Custody

The Palestinian Authority should promptly implement the recommendations of the Palestinian Legislative Council's investigation into the recent torture and death in custody of Majid al-Barghuti, Human Rights Watch said today. The Palestinian Authority should hold accountable members of the security services who violated Palestinian or international law in his death.

Al-Barghuti, the 42-year-old imam of a mosque in the village of Kobar, outside Ramallah, was arrested by the Palestinian Authority's General Intelligence Service (GIS) on February 14, 2008, and pronounced dead on February 22.

The family retrieved al-Barghuti's body on February 24. Photos taken of the body that day, viewed by Human Rights Watch, show deep and extensive bruising on the legs, feet and back, consistent with marks caused from beatings. Both wrists had lacerations, apparently from handcuffs.

In response to al-Barghuti's killing, the Palestinian Legislative Council formed an ad hoc committee to investigate his death. The committee released its report on April 3, concluding that al-Barghuti had been tortured and the Palestinian Authority was responsible for his death. The committee called on the Palestinian Authority to hold the responsible members of the GIS legally accountable and to ensure that torture in Palestinian Authority custody comes to an end.

"The evidence collected by Human Rights Watch and the PLC committee strongly suggests that al-Barghuti died from torture," said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "We hope President Abbas will help end torture by bringing to justice those who apparently killed Majid al-Barghuti."

Three days after al-Barghouti's death, Human Rights Watch spoke with the victim's brother and a witness from the village. Both men said about eight men in civilian clothes had arrested al-Barghuti without a warrant as he was leaving the mosque after evening prayers. The witness said that he spoke with one of the men, whom he recognized as being from the GIS.

Israel had arrested al-Barghuti on five previous occasions for suspected Hamas ties, and since June 2007 Palestinian Authority officials had summoned him twice for questioning, his brother Moufak said.

Al-Barghuti's family learned on February 14 that the GIS was holding him, but family members said they were unable to determine his whereabouts or why he was being held. Eight days later, on February 22, the family learned that al-Barghuti was being treated at al-Khaled Hospital in Ramallah. The brother went to the GIS headquarters in Ramallah but guards there refused to provide any information. Later that day, the family learned that al-Barghuti had died. Palestinian Authority officials told the media that al-Barghuti had died of heart failure.

"He wasn't sick, he suffered no health problems," al-Barghuti's brother said.

On February 25, Human Rights Watch interviewed two men who said they had witnessed GIS members maltreating al-Barghuti in custody. Both men were in custody at the GIS headquarters at the time. They said they heard and saw al-Barghuti being beaten and then denied medical care.

One of the men, who claimed GIS officers also beat him extensively while he was hung from a hook on the wall, said he saw al-Barghuti in custody and then heard the security forces threatening and beating him. "We know you are with Hamas, where are the weapons?" they reportedly said. He said he also saw al-Barghuti at various times over a few days handcuffed to a wall with his hands behind his back. Human Rights Watch saw lacerations on both wrists of the witness, which he said were from metal handcuffs digging into his skin.

The other witness, interviewed separately, said he saw al-Barghuti in a variety of stress positions, known in Arabic as shabah. In one position, Al-Barghuti had his hands tied behind his back and was hanging from the wall with his toes just touching the ground. In another position, his arms were tied behind his back and he was forced to stand with one leg in the air. The man said he also heard sounds of al-Barghuti getting beaten with a plastic pipe. "He kept yelling 'God help me!'" the man said.

After three days in detention, both men said, they heard al-Barghuti telling the guards that he was vomiting blood. GIS officers took him to the hospital for a few hours and then brought him back. "I saw him," one of the witnesses said. "His feet and hands were black and blue. He was shivering and his eyes were rolled back. He was being held up by two guys."

Following al-Barghuti's death, President Mahmoud Abbas called for the attorney general to conduct an investigation, but other government statements at the time asserted that al-Barghuti had not been abused in custody. On February 26, Palestinian Authority Minister of Information Riad al-Malki told the media that the government will "take all the necessary measures after the report of the ad hoc committee," but he explicitly denied that al-Barghuti's death resulted from torture. Other officials said that al-Barghuti suffered from a weak heart.

In addition to the credible allegations of torture, Palestinian Authority security forces committed other violations of Palestinian and international law in their handling of the case, Human Rights Watch said. Al-Barghuti, as well as the other two men in custody at the same time, were not informed of the reasons for their arrest, allowed to see a lawyer, or brought before an investigative judge, as Palestinian law requires after 24 hours in detention. Al-Barghuti also seems to have been denied prompt medical care.

Since June 2007, when Hamas routed Fatah forces in Gaza and took control there, Palestinian Authority security forces have arrested hundreds of people in the West Bank, mostly men, without charge. Most of the victims have been members, supporters, or suspected supporters of the Palestinian group Hamas. Lawyers and local human rights groups say that due process violations are the norm, as is physical maltreatment, especially the stress positions known as shabah.

The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has also closed dozens of Hamas-affiliated organizations and media outlets throughout the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas forces have committed serious and widespread abuses against suspected members of Fatah, including arbitrary detentions, torture, excessive use of force in dispersing rallies, and deaths in detention, Human Rights Watch said.

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