Palestinian human rights groups have condemned attempts by the public prosecutor to question a member of parliament, who has sought refuge inside the Palestinian Legislative Council building in Ramallah for a seventh day in a row.
Last week, Palestinian Authority security services attempted to arrest Najat Abu Bakr, who was summoned for interrogation after she accused a cabinet minister of corruption.
The Fatah politician then staged a sit-in at the building of the now-defunct parliament, arguing that the Palestinian Basic Law, or constitution, makes elected parliament members immune from arrest.
Abu Bakr, who hails from the northern West Bank city of Jenin, said she was being persecuted for exercising her freedom of expression. She also said that any complaint against her must be assessed by parliament and either approved or rejected.
The current crisis started when she claimed that Hussein al-Araj, a minister closely associated with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, had used public funds to invest in a private water project – a charge the minister denies.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Abu Bakr defended her comments: “I was defending the rights of the Palestinian people,” she said.
“It is sad to see attempts to silence those who speak for the people, and it is equally sad to see the Palestinian Basic Law being trampled over.”
The public prosecutor said Abu Bakr was being summoned for crimes committed, and not for voicing an opinion.
“She has been requested to stand before the public prosecution for committing crimes that are penalised by the existing Penal Law,” the prosecutor said in a statement last week.
“Immunity must not be used to commit crimes and actions violating the law, as immunity is a duty and not a personal privilege.”
Abu Bakr also said she was targeted for supporting a teachers’ strike, which has left approximately one million Palestinian students out of school for the past three weeks.
Earlier this month, Palestinian Authority (PA) security officers arrested 20 teachers before attempting to foil a Ramallah protest by more than 20,000 others, who say that the government has not implemented a 2013 agreement that promised pay increases and promotions.
Teachers make up the second largest segment of public workers, but the PA spends around a third of its budget on security instead – more than what’s allotted to the education and health sectors combined.
The Palestinian Human Rights Foundation, a Ramallah-based group said it was “concerned about the deterioration of human rights in the West Bank”.
It added “that it was Abu Bakr’s right as a legislator “to combat corruption”, and called on the Palestinian president to “respect the human rights he always vows in his speeches to uphold”.
‘Respect the constitution’
The Palestinian Legislative Council, or parliament, has not met since 2007, when clashes erupted between the Hamas and Fatah parties, a year after the former emerged victorious in parliamentary elections. Despite this, members of parliament still make $3,000 a month, costing the PA approximately $4.7m a year.
Last week, human rights group representatives, politicians and supporters staged a demonstration outside the parliament in support of Abu Bakr.
“A lot of confusion is arising from mis-interpreting the Palestinian Basic Law,” said Qaddoura Fares, who heads the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a Ramallah-based rights group.
“This gathering is a reminder that everyone, including the president and any regular citizen, must respect the constitution,” Fares, who took part in the protest, told Al Jazeera.
Hamas politicians in Gaza also condemned the public prosecutor’s summons for interrogating Abu Bakr.
“Every member of parliament enjoys immunity,” Ahmad Abu Hilbieh told Al Jazeera. “We condemn this attempt to go after Abu Bakr and silence her.”