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West Bank crackdown: Released activist says prisoners beaten by Palestinian Authority

Meanwhile, the UN calls on the PA to release 'those seeking to exercise their rights to freedom of expression' in Palestine
Some of the Palestinian activists detained by PA security forces included (l-r) former political prisoner Khader Adnan, architect and academic Khaldun Bishara and writer Zakaria Mohammed (Screengrab)

An activist released from Palestinian Authority (PA) detention on Tuesday said that prominent government critics have been mistreated in custody, amid international condemnation of the PA's crackdown on free speech. 

Architect and academic Khaldun Bishara is one of several activists who were arrested by PA forces over the weekend for allegedly staging an unauthorised demonstration in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.

Upon his release, Bishara wrote on Facebook recounting his detention in "humiliating and crowded" conditions, adding that several prisoners had launched a hunger strike in protest at their detention.

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Palestinian activists protested against the PA's politically motivated arrests, as well as calling for accountability for the death of outspoken activist Nizar Banat in PA forces' custody in June.

Bishara was released on bail on Tuesday, and is expected to attend a court hearing on 11 November on charges of “inciting sectarian and religious sentiments”.

Palestinian police arrested 21 people on Saturday, and another five protesters on Sunday as they stood outside the judicial headquarters, as a hearing for those detained the day before was ongoing.

Those detained over the weekend included prominent figures such as Bishara, filmmaker Mohammad al-Attar, activist Fadi Quran, journalist Omar Nazzal, writer Zakaria Mohammed, and former political prisoners detained by Israel, Maher al-Akhras and Khader Adnan.

"The detention conditions are humiliating and crowded, even sheep couldn’t stand it,” Bishara wrote.

According to Bishara, four of the detainees launched a hunger strike after a PA police officer in plainclothes insulted and physically assaulted Adnan.

The hunger strikers, including Adnan, who is known for his extended periods of hunger strikes while imprisoned by Israel, were “punished” and prohibited from buying from the canteen or using the phone as a measure to pressure them to cease their action, Bishara added.

'Shameful act'

The Palestinian movement Islamic Jihad condemned the arrests and assault of Adnan and Akhras, two of its veteran members, denouncing the "shameful act" by the PA.

Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ziyad Nakhla said the PA's arrest of "opinion leaders" was dealing a blow to "the unity of the Palestinian people".

'Our arrest was done outside of the law and without reason, it was to send a message to everyone'

- Zakaria Mohammed

"[The PA] should cease its unpatriotic and illegal practices and reconsider its calculations," Nakhla added.

Zakaria Mohammed, a Palestinian writer who was arrested on Sunday and released on Monday, called the recent arrests “unlawful”. 

“Our arrest was done outside of the law and without reason, it was to send a message to everyone," he wrote on social media. "This message is: 'There isn't anyone too big in this country (to get away with opposing the PA).'"

The PA has been facing large protests since June following Banat's death.

Since then, dozens of Palestinian activists have been arrested, beaten or otherwise injured while participating in demonstrations, while others have been detained for criticising the PA on social media.

Condemnations of PA arrests

On Tuesday, the United Nations said that it was “deeply concerned" over the arrests of "those seeking to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly in Palestine”, calling for the activists' “immediate release without charge".

The UN human rights office said that the PA was targeting "well-known human rights defenders and political activists" with arrest, adding that the activists who were rounded up in Ramallah on charges of holding a public protest “without permit” were in fact arrested “before any protest had even started".

The European Union representative in Jerusalem also expressed worry and condemnation over the recent mass arrests by the PA. “Violence against peaceful human rights defenders, activists and protesters is unacceptable," the EU said. 

Palestinian civil society organisations meanwhile warned on Monday of "a dangerous decline in rights and public freedoms”, singling out PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh for "his failure to protect the rights of citizens".

A senior US official warned in July that the PA was “like a dry forest waiting to catch on fire” because of its mounting unpopularity amid economic strains and a crackdown on dissent.