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Red nose protests for jailed Palestinian clown

Circus performers around the world have mobilised support for a Palestinian clown held by Israel without trial for more than three months
A file photo of a red-nosed clown (Wikipedia)

by Sarah Benhaida

Circus performers around the world are mobilising in support of a Palestinian clown held by Israel without trial for more than three months on unspecified grounds.

They are showing solidarity with red noses and fluorescent wigs in Europe and with a colourful caravan outside an Israeli prison.

In Brazil, Afro-style Capoeira moves are being performed in Mohammed Abu Sakha's name and songs are sung about him.

A dozen Israeli circus artists recently travelled to the prison in northern Israel where he was held before being transferred to a facility in the Negev desert in the south of the country.

Israeli performer and activist Hanita-Caroline Hendelman was outside the Israeli military court at Ofer, west of Jerusalem, on Monday, singing and beating her tambourine while an army judge heard his appeal against detention.

The court did not issue an immediate ruling.

The Israeli army does not say why Abu Sakha is held in "administrative detention", the controversial measure under which a person can be jailed without trial for periods of six months, renewable indefinitely.

Amnesty International has said Israel believes him to be a member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is considered a militant movement by Israel due to its armed wing.

The Palestinian Performing Arts Network (PPAN) said it was "deeply concerned" about the detention of Abu Sakha, who since 2008 has been part of the Palestinian Circus School in the West Bank village of Bir Zeit, first as a student and later as a clown and teacher.

Hendelman knows Abu Sakha well and has asked prison authorities to allow him to receive circus equipment.

"They turned me down but I know that he practises inside and coaches some of his fellow-detainees, who are just 12 or 14 years old," she said.

Brazil 'knows Mohammed's story'

Abu Sakha's mother Raja, who has only been able to visit him twice since his arrest on 14 December, quotes him as saying that he practises his skills "to forget the prison and imagine that he is free and outside the walls." 

Raja is moved by the wave of sympathy from abroad.

"In Brazil now there are seven songs named after him," she said. "People there now know Mohammed's story."

On the Facebook page of the Palestinian Circus School there is a string of posts from supporters in New York, Rio de Janeiro and Copenhagen, among others.

There is a video clip of costumed dancers in London, and an assortment of photos from around the world featuring red-nosed protesters.

About 700 Palestinians are in Israeli jails under administrative detention, which is criticised by Palestinians, human rights groups and the international community.

Israel defends it as a tool to allow authorities to hold suspects while continuing to gather evidence, with the aim of preventing attacks and keeping sensitive information secret.

One Israeli Jew has been held under the measure for seven months on suspicion of being a leader of a group of extremists targeting Palestinians and Christians in hate crimes. 

Trapeze to freedom

On Monday evening, in the circus tent where Abu Sakha used to perform, the Bir Zeit school put on a fantasy portrayal of the prison.

A trapeze artist swung over a fence and bars to escape, while jugglers thronged behind the prison gates.

When freedom may become reality is not known. The appeal was heard behind closed doors and Abu Sakha's lawyer was not allowed to see his arrest file.

The hands of both the lawyer and the military judge are effectively tied by the military prosecutor's assertion that Abu Sakha is "a danger to public safety without saying exactly what the danger is," Palestinian legal expert Murad Jadallah said.

"The children regularly ask us where he is and when he will be coming back. We can say nothing except, 'He is in prison. He may get out this summer, maybe later'," said the clown's cousin Nur Abu Rob who joined the circus with Abu Sakha in 2007 and became, like him, one of its leaders.

For now the Bir Zeit circus school must adapt to Abu Sakha's absence, and his colleagues say that the show will go on.

Without knowing for how long, they are replacing the act of the man they say has "the gift of putting a smile on every face".

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