The PA’s practise of paying university students for information has become prevalent, staff and students say.
Ramallah – Baraa al-Qadi, a 23-year-old student at Birzeit University in Ramallah, has been arrested twice by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces for criticising the government on Facebook and in the media.
In September 2014, PA preventive security forces arrested Qadi, who is the head of Birzeit’s media club, after he wrote an article for al-Quds quoting someone who said that Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the preventive security forces, had tortured former Hamas member Imad Awadallah. (Amnesty International has said that the PA abused Awadallah, though they do not name Rajoub in their report.)
Held for 10 days, Qadi said he was asked about his Facebook posts and whether he had any links to Islamist organisations like Hamas; he told his interrogators that he did not. He stood accused of defaming the PA.
In January, Qadi was again arrested when he put up a Facebook post mocking Rajoub, the same high-ranking Fatah official who is now the head of the Palestinian Football Association. He suggested that Rajoub should resign after the Palestinian football team lost to Jordan in a match, and should hand over the reins to “Captain Majed Faraj”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a popular Arabic cartoon character and to Majed Faraj, the PA’s intelligence chief.
“Before I posted this joke, I asked some people: ‘Will this put me in jail?’ They said, ‘No, impossible. There is nothing. You wrote nothing, just a joke.’ But they took me,” Qadi told Al Jazeera.
Facing charges in court of “insulting a public official”, Qadi was held for 13 days, during which he said he was deprived of sleep and again interrogated about links with Islamist groups. Although he is now out of jail, the charges from the two arrests are pending, and his next court date is later this month.
Another Palestinian university student, 23-year-old Ahmad Bilal al-Malak al-Deek, was detained and allegedly tortured this summer after posting a comment on Facebook.
After having become fed up with electricity cuts in his northern West Bank village of Kafr al-Deek, Deek said that on July 3, he posted a coarse message criticising the local authorities. He has since deleted the post.
, we do not understand what democracy means.”]
That same day, an assailant allegedly tried to burn the car of the mayor of Kafr al-Deek. Two days later, PA police summoned Deek to question him about the car; his lawyers say the mayor alerted police to the Facebook post.
Deek denied involvement in the crime, but he was held by police for the next five days. During that time, he says PA police abused him – depriving him of sleep, forcing him to stand on his toes for hours and beating him with sticks to the point that he could not walk on his bruised feet after he was released.
Speaking to Al Jazeera about the incident in his uncle’s home, Deek showed pictures of his swollen, black-and-blue feet that he said were taken after his detention. “Here, [in Palestine], we do not understand what democracy means,” he said.
Deek is now suing the PA for torture, a practice human rights groups say has been widespread in the occupied West Bank for years. Those who allegedly beat Deek are facing trial, according to Majed Arouri, the executive director of the Civil Commission for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Rule of Law, which is representing Deek.The trial is ongoing.
Qadi and Deek are two of a growing group of young Palestinians targeted by West Bank authorities for criticising officials on Facebook.
Since 2014, the PA has detained 52 people for Facebook activity, according to unpublished data provided to Al Jazeera by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. The monitor also said that over the same time period, 58 Palestinians have been summoned to interrogations with PA security for Facebook posts and subsequently released.
One of the most recently reported cases occurred in September, when PA forces arrested Abdullah Nashat al-Sayyid for allegedly insulting Saudi Arabia on Facebook, though he told al-Monitor he was interrogated about criticising the Tulkarm municipality. He was charged on the basis of a Jordanian law that prohibits “inciting sectarian strife”. (The Jordanian government administered the occupied West Bank from 1948 to 1967, and the PA uses a patchwork of Palestinian and Jordanian laws to govern in the small area of the West Bank that Israel allows them to control.)
Those detained for their Facebook activity join a long list of prisoners whom the PA has jailed for alleged links with Hamas, the Islamist rival to the nationalist Fatah party that dominates the PA. However, the crackdown on Facebook dissent has also swept up those unaffiliated with Hamas.
Critics of the PA say the arrests over Facebook posts reveal its nature as an authoritarian body that does not tolerate dissent.
Anas Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian human rights lawyer, said PA judges, prosecutors and security services work together to tamp down dissent. “There is collaboration, and there is an unfortunate dependency by the judiciary and public prosecution on the security forces,” he told Al Jazeera. “This debunks all myths stated about the integrity and independence of the judicial system.”
He added that the PA is working to “validate and protect itself, and, like any security system or police authority, it works to ensure the protection of its project – even if this means arresting, suppressing and beating people in the streets, or chasing and persecuting them”.
But Adnan al-Damiri, a spokesperson for PA security services, told Al Jazeera that the PA does “not arrest anyone for their political opinions or political stance. We arrest anyone who violates the law”. The PA frequently cites a Jordanian-era law that prohibits insulting public officials.
The harsh consequences for criticising officials on Facebook have led some, like Deek, to say he will not criticise the PA on Facebook or any other platform in the future. But others, including Qadi, are undeterred.
“We are not afraid of anyone,” Qadi said. “They [the PA] are against our national project.”
Mariam Barghouti contributed translation to this report.