Amnesty slams Palestinians' freedom of expression arrests

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Amnesty International on Thursday censured Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for detaining critics and opponents for expressing their views.

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The London-based human rights group said five people were arrested in March and April, including a peace activist for holding a video call with Israelis and a writer who criticized authorities in Gaza for a deadly market fire. Amnesty called the detentions a “pattern of arbitrary arrests” of Palestinians for voicing their opinions.

“The authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip have violated the right to freedom of expression by arbitrarily detaining individuals solely for peacefully sharing their views on social media. This must immediately stop,” said Saleh Higazi, deputy Middle East director at Amnesty International.

Amnesty criticized both the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, and called for all those arrested for expressing their views to be released.

The arrests happened during states of emergency imposed in both territories over the coronavirus outbreak, and Amnesty said the detentions during a pandemic put these individuals at an "increased risk.”

In the West Bank, one of the detainees is a former member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party who criticized the Palestinian leader. A second detainee had also slammed Abbas’ response to the COVID-19 crisis. Both were later released.

Ahmed Majdalani, the Palestinian Authority's social affairs minister, denied there were any violations of freedom of expression but said some individuals had been briefly detained for “slander and defamation.”

"There is a big difference between freedom of expression and slander and defamation. In the West, people can be detained and put on trial for slander and defamation. No law on earth tolerates that.”

Gaza has been ruled by Hamas since it routed pro-Abbas forces in 2007. Authorities there detained a writer who hinted in a Facebook post at Hamas’ responsibility for a market fire that killed over 20 Palestinians in March, and a cartoonist who criticized the detention of the writer. Both were released.

Rami Aman, a Palestinian peace activist who was arrested for organizing a video conference call with dozens of Israelis, remains in Hamas custody. Aman’s family told The Associated Press authorities refuse their requests to visit him, citing health restrictions.

Iyad al-Bozum, spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza, rejected Amnesty’s criticism.

“There are no detainees on freedom of expression and the names mentioned had committed violations punishable by law and have nothing to do with political opinion,” he said.

Since the 2007 Palestinian split, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have repeatedly cracked down on each other’s supporters, banned their activities and rounded up critics, although the intensity of such campaigns varies.

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Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.