David Miller
The Media Line
January 19, 2011 - 1:00am

Palestinian human rights organization have saluted a decision by the Palestinian Authority to halt political arrests in the West Bank, but expressed concern security forces would continue their crackdown on opponents on criminal grounds.

The new instructions were confirmed during a press conference by Sha’wan Jabarin, director of the Ramallah based al-Haq human rights organization. He said that the PA had ordered its security agencies operating in the West Bank to refrain from issuing military arrest warrants against civilians and that from now on civilians would only be tried in civil rather than military courts.

He said the move was brought to his attention by the General Intelligence Service, and was due to take affect on January 16. The decision was confirmed by Ahmad Al-Mobayyed, head of the Palestinian Military Judiciary.

Since Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in July 2007, political arrests of opposition members have become commonplace both in the Fatah-ruled West Bank and in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Palestinian human rights organizations have called on the PA to halt the practice.

"We welcome this announcement but now we must wait and see its implementation on the ground," Randa Sanyora, executive director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), a Ramallah-based organization, told The Media Line. "There are still hundreds of cases treated by the military courts that should be transferred to the civil system and reviewed by the public prosecutor."

Sanyora said she met with officials in the General Intelligence Service and the Preventive Security Force, the two largest security apparatuses in the West Bank, who confirmed receiving orders to refrain from issuing military arrest warrants.

Palestinian Basic Law stipulates than all suspects must be brought before a judge within 24 hours of their arrest, and that the judge may extend their remand by 15 days. Under the PLO revolutionary penal code of 1979, which served as the legal basis for the military arrests, a suspect may be incarcerated for months without trial or hearing.

The main benefactor of the new order would be Hamas activists in the West Bank. Azzam Srour, a legal assistant with Ad-Dameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association, said that some “Ninety-nine percent of those arrested under military warrants in the West Bank are affiliated with Hamas.”

"Only a tiny portion of them are even brought before a court-martial, which does not provide them minimal legal rights. Their attorney cannot view the evidence and often a judgment is issued on the same day the trial begins,” Srour told The Media Line.

Srour said that large arrest campaigns targeting Hamas affiliates periodically take place in the West Bank in retaliation for similar campaigns that target Fatah members in Gaza.

No official numbers exist for political prisoners in PA jails, but Sha'wan Jabarin of Al-Haq estimated that 300-400 prisoners are currently incarcerated. He said that 69 prisoners were released since the beginning of January.

The change in policy came as result of combined efforts by grassroots Palestinian human rights organizations and foreign pressure exerted by Western countries, especially in the European Union, Randa Sanyora said. She added that the move was part of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's institution building project, a prerequisite for international funding and future recognition of a Palestinian state.

A Palestinian legal analyst who spoke to the Media Line on condition of anonymity said that respecting the rule of law was key in showing the world that Palestinians were prepared for statehood.

"I think this will strengthen the Palestinian Authority," he said. "If those already judged by military courts are re-judged by civil courts, it will show the world that the PA is [morally] above Hamas."

But it appears the new orders will take time to trickle down to the ranks. According to The Palestinian Information Center, a Hamas-affiliated news agency, members of the Preventive Security Force and the Palestinian police had "kidnapped" four Hamas members in the village of Silwad, near Ramallah, Wednesday morning. According to the report, masked troops entered the men's homes and conducted a two-hour search, breaking furniture in the process.

Sanyora expressed concern that Fatah would continue to quash opponents through the civil judicial system by fabricating criminal allegations.

"We're scared that now they will start bringing criminal charges against these men," she said. "If this will happen it will be a return to the same vicious cycle, and even more difficult to expose. We will wait and see what happens."


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