Nablus, occupied West Bank – Had he not been blindfolded and shackled to a chair in a Palestinian Authority (PA) prison cell, Awni Mazen al-Shakhshir might have spent the first evening of Ramadan last year breaking the day’s fast with his family in Nablus.
Shakhshir said that throughout the first week of his 41-day detention, PA interrogators in Bethlehem forced him into stress positions, punched and kicked him, and deprived him of sleep.
By day, Shakhshir was blindfolded and shackled to a chair, he said. At night, after the guards had eaten and slept for much of the afternoon, the violent interrogations would begin. “They saved the beating till night,” Shakhshir said, “because it was Ramadan.”
At no point during his detention was Shakhshir provided a lawyer or presented with formal charges, he said. However, he says that interrogators, who questioned him about his role within a Hamas-aligned student group, repeatedly told him: “People like you should be punished.”
Shakhshir is not alone in his accusations. Earlier this month, the Palestinian prisoner support association Addameer accused Palestinian security forces of subjecting five Palestinian detainees to varying forms of ill treatment, including being held in stress positions, sleep deprivation and beatings. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said publicly that three of the men were planning to carry out a “terror” attack against Israel, while the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine condemned their detention, noting: “The Front called again to hold the PA president accountable for these absurd and harmful statements and actions, which serve to give a veneer of legitimacy to the crimes of the occupation and its attacks against the Palestinian people.”
Meanwhile, in a report published in February by Israeli rights groups B’Tselem and HaMoked, 14 Palestinian detainees who described being mistreated or tortured in an Israeli detention centre said they were first “tortured under interrogation” by Palestinian security forces – just some of the latest in a stream of long-standing allegations, reiterated by Palestinian rights groups, that PA security forces in the occupied West Bank and Hamas in Gaza torture Palestinian detainees.
You might be able to rationalise torture at the hands of your enemy, but you can't justify torture perpetrated by your own people.
Jamal Dajani, the director of strategic communications and media in the PA prime minister’s office, previously told Al Jazeera that he had “no information where I can confirm these allegations”. In a subsequent public interview last month, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said “certain things happen, torture happens, but it is not the PA’s policy”.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) recorded 1,274 complaints of “torture and ill treatment” of Palestinian detainees by PA forces in 2014 alone. Though comprehensive figures for 2015 have yet to be released, available figures show that at least 323 complaints have been registered by the organisation in the occupied West Bank and Gaza in the past seven months.
Palestinian rights group al-Haq has identified 30 cases of Palestinian torture at the hands of the PA, as defined by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, since this time last year. Each case was “politically motivated”, according to the victims, al-Haq legal consultant Issam Abdeen told Al Jazeera.
Shakhshir said the line of questioning by interrogators left him with little doubt that his own arrest was politically motivated. Security officials questioned him about his role in a Hamas-aligned student group at an-Najah University, where he is studying physical education. Shakhshir, who told Al Jazeera he was a secretary of a sub-committee at the time of his arrest, said his role was legal and a matter of public record.
According to Abdeen, al-Haq has anecdotally seen an overall increase in the number of testimonies that allege torture since the PA became a signatory to the UN anti-torture convention in April 2014, as part of Palestine’s accession to observer status at the UN. The ICHR has similarly found that little progress has been made since the PA signed the convention.
“We have witnessed an increased interest in human rights within PA security forces since the signing of the human rights treaties and conventions, [but] very little has changed since the signing of [the convention] in terms of practice,” said the ICHR’s West Bank programme director, Musa Abu Dheim.
Mahmud Sehwail, a psychiatrist who has treated victims of torture since 1983, founded the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre (TRC) in Ramallah in 1997. TRC clients who experience torture are treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and trauma, but Palestinians tortured by PA security forces struggle with the additional burden of having been abused by their own people, he said.
“You might be able to rationalise torture at the hands of your enemy, but you can’t justify torture perpetrated by your own people,” Dr Sehwail told Al Jazeera at his Ramallah office.
Shakhshir, who has family members who work for the government, said Palestinians could expect torture at the hands of the Israelis, but “when it’s your neighbour, or your relative, it’s very painful”.
Palestinians tortured by the PA often stay silent for fear of reprisals, the TRC has found. Of 54 documented cases of Palestinian torture, only three committed to treatment. Some declined to follow up due to “fear of re-arrest, retaliation and social stigmas that may have repercussions for their families or jobs”, according to the TRC.
“If a prisoner is released, sometimes their community throws a reception or a party, which is very likely to happen if you are arrested by the Israelis,” Shakhshir said. “But if you’re being released from PA prison, you can’t, because you could endanger yourself, or put other people in danger.”
Since 1997, the TRC has run mental health and human rights training for PA security forces. Two decades on, however, allegations of torture persist. Dr Sehwail says the TRC’s efforts are “a long-term intervention”.
Shakhshir, who does not believe the individuals who tortured him will be brought to justice, also does not hold them personally accountable. “The person who holds the most responsibility,” Shakhshir said, leaning forward in his chair, “is the president. He is responsible for the policies of the state.”
Abu Dheim says there are a number of obvious steps that could be taken to reduce reports of torture in Palestinian prisons, including holding PA security officials accountable and offering victims financial compensation.
Engineering student Ahmad al-Deeq, 23, from the West Bank city of Salfit, is suing the PA for $1m in damages after he says he was tortured on and off for five days in a PA detention centre in the northern West Bank. His criminal case against the PA is the first of its kind.
Majed Arouri, the founder of the Civil Commission for the Independence of Judiciary and Rule of Law, a Ramallah-based legal centre whose lawyers are representing Deeq, told Al Jazeera that a final ruling may be years away, but the decision to seek damages has already begun to change societal attitudes towards torture.
“A handful of individuals who also allegedly experienced mistreatment and torture in PA detention have already come forward to ask us for legal representation,” Arouri told Al Jazeera.
“The intelligence services understand that there may be legal repercussions for their actions, and the courts are beginning to show increased interest,” he added. “However, the most important aspect of this case will be the judge’s ruling”.
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