Climate of intolerance in West Bank, activists say

January 29, 2012 - 2:15 PM
Mideast Palestinians Stifling Dissent

FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2012, file photo, Palestinian Hamas supporters hold banners of prisoners arrested by the Palestinian Authority, during a protest calling for their release in the West Bank city of Nablus. Human rights activists say harassment and arbitrary arrests of dissenters remain commonplace in a persistent climate of intolerance. They say they've seen improvements, including a marked decrease in the mistreatment of detainees, but that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' security forces, who are partially funded by the West, need to do better. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh, File)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A Palestinian atheist who was jailed and beaten last year for expressing anti-Muslim views on Facebook and in blogs says Palestinian security forces are harassing him again, despite government pledges to respect human rights.

The blogger's renewed ordeal is part of a persistent climate of intolerance of dissent in the territories controlled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, say human rights activists. They say they've seen improvements, including a marked decrease in the mistreatment of detainees, but that Abbas' security forces, who are partially funded by the West, must halt harassment and arbitrary detention.

Government spokesman Ghassan Khatib acknowledged occasional lapses, but said that in the past two years, "there's been great progress and success in reducing abuses."

Such promises mean little to atheist blogger Walid Husayin, who has lived in fear of the security forces since being released from a nine-month prison stint last summer.

"I'm sick and tired. My life has come to a halt," the 28-year-old Husayin said in a phone interview from his home in the northern West Bank town of Qalqiliya.

Since his release on bail, he has been picked up several times by security agents and held for days at a time. In one of those detentions, he was beaten with cables and forced to stand in a painful position on empty cans, said Husayin, the son of a Muslim preacher. Interrogators smashed his two computers and demanded that he stop expressing his views, he said.

Activists from three rights organizations said they witnessed an increase in arbitrary detentions in recent months, including calling in "troublemakers" for repeated interrogation, but said they hadn't yet collated 2011 figures.

Those targeted include loyalists of the Islamic militant Hamas, Abbas' political rival, and supporters of Hezb al-Tahrir, or the "Liberation Party," a puritan Islamic movement considered apolitical.

The increased pressure on dissent coincides with pro-democracy uprisings of the Mideast Arab Spring, but it's not clear if there is a direct link. Anti-government demonstrations in the West Bank usually draw just a few dozen or few hundred people, tiny compared to protests that toppled rulers in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia over the past year.

There appears to be little popular sympathy for those targeted in the crackdown, said Jamil Rabah, an independent Palestinian pollster.

In Gaza, ruled by the Islamic Hamas since a violent takeover in 2007, the Islamists appear to dealing even more harshly with critics, particularly on religious matters.

In both territories, those who violate social norms find themselves in the crosshairs. In Gaza, Hamas recently banned a televised amateur singing contest on modesty grounds because it included female contestants.

In the West Bank, Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid said her husband was roughed up and lightly hurt last fall after she mocked Palestinian officials in a skit. Witnesses identified the assailants as plainclothes security men, said Zayid, a contributor to "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on Current TV, a U.S. cable show.

She said it was the first attempt at intimidation after years of West Bank performances.

"I feel like the Palestinian Authority is going backward," said Zayid, a resident of Cliffside Park, New Jersey. "That is not the state I am fighting for."

Blogger Husayin, who got his start with anonymous Facebook posts, caused an uproar in the Arab world in 2010 by mocking Islam's Prophet Muhammad, dismissing Islam as a primitive religion and sarcastically referring to himself as God.

In November 2010, he was caught in a sting that used Facebook to find him. In the West Bank, it's against the law to defame Islam or Christianity.

He was initially held without charges, but eventually he was accused of blasphemy and insulting people's beliefs. For four of the nine months of his initial detention, he was kept in solitary confinement. He told the New York-based Human Rights Watch that he was shackled for long periods and so harshly beaten that he vomited blood. After his release on bail in August, a court gave him a three-year suspended sentence.

Husayin returned home to his conservative Muslim family, rarely venturing out. He said his family is ashamed of what people might say about him, because of his unorthodox views. Husayin said he doesn't want people to see him either — he still fears vigilante retribution.

The blogger wouldn't allow reporters to visit, saying he feared it would inflame family tensions.

Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security forces, said he was not aware of harassment against Husayin.

"It isn't acceptable to summon somebody for ideological reasons. I am prepared to deal with this case," he said.

Khatib, the government spokesman, portrayed attempts to stifle dissent as growing pains. "We can promise that in 2012, we will have progress from last year. We are building a state, and there are difficulties in doing that," he said.

While the blogger's "crime" is unusual in the West Bank, his arbitrary detention fits a pattern, activists from three human rights groups said. Shawan Jabarin of the rights group al-Haq said he was aware of hundreds of arbitrary detentions in the past few months.

The bulk of those detained are Hamas supporters.

"We haven't seen tremendous improvement in rights and freedoms," said Randa Siniora of the Independent Commission for Human Rights.

The worst abuses receded over the past two years, like torture of political activists and lengthy detentions, the activists said, and the practice of trying civilians in military courts has largely stopped, they said.

Damiri, the police spokesman, said lessons have been learned.

"There are individual cases of abuse, but we don't have a culture of revenge," he said.

Rights activists say it's too soon to speak of a major shift in attitude.

"There's a lack of accountability, a lack of laws enshrining rights," said Jabarin. "We can't talk about a culture of institutions and the rule of law."