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Two arrests linked to Facebook posts critical of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have spurred a variety of human rights and media freedom groups to call on the PA to stop harassing their critics.
On Wednesday 28 March, Palestinian Preventative Security Forces detained lecturer Ismat Abdul-Khaleq “after they read a quote on her Facebook page accusing President Mahmoud Abbas of being a traitor and demanding he resigns,” lawyer Issam Abdeen of the Palestinian rights group al-Haq told the Associated Press.
Defaming a public official is illegal in the West Bank. As happened in the recent case of detained journalist Yousef Al Shayeb, Abdul-Khaleq was told that she will be held for two weeks while the Public Prosecutor’s office “searches for evidence”. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, she is being held in solitary confinement.
On Sunday 1 April, journalist Tariq Khamis was arrested after discussing Abdul-Khaleq’s arrest on Facebook. Khamis told the website Electronic Intifada that he believed his arrest was connected to an article he wrote about youth groups that were critical of the authorities. He told Reuters that during his three-hour interrogation, “I was questioned on my work as a journalist, and they confiscated the files on my laptop.” He added “the authorities are afraid of journalism.”
Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Al-Haq and Reporteurs Sans Frontieres have all expressed their concern at the way critical voices are being targeted and detained by the PA.
The authorities emphasise that the judiciary and the government are two separate entities, but criticism of the authorities can result in incursions by security and judicial sources. Adnan Dmeiri, the spokesman of the security services which detained and questioned both Abdul-Khaleq and Khamis, claims “freedom of expression stops at defamation”. Yet his following statement, that “any citizen can respond to insults and baseless accusations with a lawsuit” does not hold true. Due process has not been followed and citizens are detained by the state while government bodies search for evidence against them. Even if Abdul-Khaleq, Khamis or even Yousef Al Shayeb are never formally charged, a message has been sent to PA’s critics in order to intimidate them. Its actions undermine its efforts to present themselves as a democratic body in a bid for further recognition and foreign investment.
Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah. Follow her on Twitter @_Ms_R