The Toronto Star
January 4, 2010 - 1:00am

NABLUS, WEST BANK–Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have stopped torturing Hamas prisoners, ending two years of systematic abuse, Hamas inmates said in jailhouse interviews.

The change in practice, said to have taken effect in October, was confirmed by a West Bank Hamas leader, human rights activists and the Palestinian prime minister.

It defuses a potential problem for Washington, because the U.S. has been closely involved in training Palestinian troops under the control of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival of the Hamas militants.

Human rights groups say their public pressure campaign helped bring about change, and U.S. President Barack Obama's no-torture policy might have helped set a new tone.

However, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the decision to halt any abuse was an independent one, part of an effort to make sure a future state is built on the right foundations.

Hamas legislators and human rights researchers said they still get sporadic reports of prisoners being slapped or forced to stand for several hours during interrogation.

However, they said the worst behaviour – beating prisoners with clubs and cables, suspending them from the ceiling while they're tied up in painful positions or forcing them to stand for days – has ended.

Fayyad confirmed a "dramatic change for the better" in West Bank prisons and said 43 officers have been jailed, fired or demoted for abusing prisoners.

In an interview, he denied that torture was ever official policy, but acknowledged past "excesses," stemming from a culture of revenge.

Abbas' security forces, dominated by supporters of his Fatah movement, have been clamping down on Hamas in the West Bank since June 2007, when the Islamic militants wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian leader.

Since then, some 4,000 Hamas followers have been arrested in the West Bank, and 500 are currently in detention, Hamas says.

In Gaza, Hamas has rounded up hundreds of Fatah supporters, who also complain of severe mistreatment.

In the West Bank, persistent reports of abuse emerged over the past two years from prisons and interrogation centres. Since 2007, eight detainees have died in West Bank lockups and 15 in Gaza, human rights researchers say, though some cases remain murky.

The worst accounts of abuse came from inmates at Jneid Prison in Nablus, a former Hamas stronghold. Last week, an Associated Press team was granted access to Jneid, including the wing holding 40 Hamas prisoners. With wardens out of earshot, inmates described past abuse and said it has largely stopped.

Khaled Susah, 48, at Jneid for the past 14 months, pulled back a sleeve to show a swollen right wrist – the result, he said, of being repeatedly handcuffed and strung up from the ceiling during 80 days of interrogation at the start of his detention.

"They were dealing with us like sheep in a slaughter house," said Susah, who was arrested on suspicion of ties to Hamas' military wing.

He said inmates were told of the new policy during a prison visit in October by a man who identified himself as an Abbas adviser.

"Torture has stopped, following strong articles in the foreign media and threats by human rights organizations of suing Palestinian Authority officials," said Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas leader in the West Bank and a leading critic of the security forces in the past.

Fayyad, the prime minister, said Hamas militants can be kept at bay with legal means.

"If that means we get less information, so be it," he said.


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