Palestinian Authority under fire over freedom of expression

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority (PA) has begun the trial of a group of activists and national figures at the Magistrate Court in the West Bank city of Ramallah. 

On Sept. 2, a hearing session for seven activists was held. They were accused of “illegal gathering,” “inciting sectarian strife” and “defamation of important figures.” The session was suspended, and the trial is to resume Oct. 6.

These activists were arrested and beaten by security forces in August because of their participation in protests and marches in Ramallah to condemn the killing of prominent political activist and government critic Nizar Banat while in custody in June, the ongoing oppression of activists and the limiting of freedoms.

In parallel with the trial, political parties and civil society groups gathered in front of the court to protest and call for a halt of what they described as “illegal trials.” They said that the PA’s brutality is increasing in the West Bank through arrests, assaults, pursuits and trials.

Neither the PA nor the Public Prosecution has issued a statement on the trials that took place.

Yet the trials’ motion contradicted some statements made recently by Palestinian officials who sought to calm the situation on the ground following the attacks and arrests.

On Aug. 25, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Fatah Movement Jibril Rajoub called for launching a societal dialogue on freedoms, stressing that “what happened during the past few days was a mistake that should not have happened.”

Omar Assaf, a member of the National Democratic Rally, a West Bank-based political group that includes a number of activists, has been arrested four times in the past period; he is now on trial. He told Al-Monitor that the trials “are illegal and do not rely on the proper mechanisms. They rely on false accusations, which violates the Palestinian Basic law.”

He stressed that people have a right to protest peacefully according to the Basic Law. He said, “The trials show how far the PA is from the Palestinian population,” especially since they target “important national and public personalities.”

Assaf pointed out that the trials reflect “the security and political chaos at governing the top of the Palestinian political pyramid” and prove the extent of brutality of the PA and its crackdown on freedom of speech. He went as far as to say that the crackdown reflects President Mahmoud Abbas’ inclination toward a project that has the blessing of Israel and the United States, saying the negative signs of this project are already showing. He mentioned Abbas’ recent meeting with Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz in Ramallah.

He noted, “Abbas is headed to some pathetic negotiations backed by the United States, and he wants to prepare the street for it through oppressive measures, blocking protests, limiting freedom of expression and cracking down on rights so that no one protests against his political agenda.”

The brutality of the PA does not stop at oppression, arrests and trials — it includes other aspects. According to Assaf, the main ones are “Abbas’ unilateral decision to postpone the general elections under the pretext of Israel refusing to hold them in Jerusalem, the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the appointments in the judiciary allowing him [Abbas] to control it and use it as a tool for political and personal gains.”

The Lawyers for Justice group has been monitoring the violations of the PA and its security apparatuses and representing many activists and political detainees in Palestinian courts. Director of the group Mohanad Karaja told Al-Monitor that the brutality of the PA in pursuing activists has increased since Banat’s killing.

He said, “The public prosecution has been accusing activists of illegal gathering, inciting sectarian strife and defaming important figures.”

Karaja pointed out that the death of Banat was a message of oppression to the activists and the opposition, which was followed by marches condemning the crime. New methods were used such as confiscating cellphones, especially women’s phones, attacking the press and legal community present at the scene, and arresting activists and those of important social or national status.

He noted that the attacks even targeted former prisoners in Israeli jails such as Khoder Adnan and Maher al-Akhras. They also targeted poets, writers and artists such as Zakariya Mohamed and national and synodical figures such as Nadia Habash. She was beaten in the street and then arrested during a sit-in in front of a Ramallah police station on July 5 to condemn Banat’s killing and the crackdown against activists. According to Karaja, the PA’s trials of activists are new tools for oppression and pursuit.

Ubay al-Aboudi, executive director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, has been arrested several times by the PA since Banat’s killing and is currently on trial. He told Al-Monitor that trying activists is a clear political method. He added, “The brutality of the PA continues and is moving toward dictatorship.” 

He accused Abbas of monopolizing all powers by postponing the elections, dissolving the PLC and controlling the judiciary.

The Sept. 2 trial received international political and media attention. Diplomatic envoys from 13 states attended it including delegations from the European Union, Amnesty International, and international and local human rights organizations. 

About the international interest, EU spokesman in the Palestinian Territories Shadi Othman told Al-Monitor, “The EU and the United States have followed the trial of activists in Ramallah because they are interested in following up on all issues linked to freedoms in Palestine.”

He said, “The EU does not only attend trials in Palestine, but it also attends trials linked to human rights in many places including Israel.” 

Othman highlighted that the EU’s interest in the human rights file in Palestine is also reflected in meetings with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Director of the PA Civil Police Maj. Gen. Hazem Atallah.

He ruled out an EU plan to suspend funding to the PA because of the violations. 

According to Othman, the EU grants nearly 300 million euros per year to Palestine, 100 million euros to the refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and 150 million euros in aid to poor families and in salaries for teachers and medical practitioners. The rest goes to the hospitals in Jerusalem or projects in other areas. 

This shows, he concluded, that the EU funding is not dedicated to the PA services, as it is helping citizens primarily and any restriction will directly and negatively impact the people first.

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