West Bank torturers funded by Britain

Palestinian Authority policemen wearing black ski-masks

Sunday Times | Jun 29, 2008

By Marie Colvin

Millions of pounds of British government money is going to Palestinian security forces which use methods of torture including hanging prisoners by their feet and putting them in “stress” positions for hours at a time.

Evidence to be published next month in a report by Human Rights Watch was corroborated last week in interviews by The Sunday Times with victims in the West Bank, ruled by President Mahmoud Abbas’s western-backed Palestinian Authority.

Prisoners who have emerged from Palestinian Authority jails – many of whom have never been charged with any offence or even seen a lawyer – said they had been subjected to mock executions, kicked, punched and beaten with sticks, plastic pipes and hoses.

The disclosures came at the end of a week in which a Berlin conference of 40 donor nations, including Britain, pledged £121m over the next three years to bolster the Palestinian security forces and judicial system in the West Bank.

Of this total, about £20m will come from Britain, which is already committed to spending £2.7m on the training of Palestinian security forces this year. A British brigadier based in the West Bank city of Ramallah is involved in the training. Britain has set aside a further £4.5m for reform, civil justice and public prosecution over the next three years.

A total of £4 billion overall has been promised to the government of Abbas, who is the commander-in-chief of the Palestinian security forces.

Western support for Abbas’s security forces is part of a strategy to isolate Hamas fundamentalists who seized control of Gaza last year.

However, many of those detained on suspicion of links to Hamas described a form of torture called “shabah” in Arabic – being forced to hold stress positions for prolonged periods.

Some have been made to stand with one leg and one arm raised for hours. Others have had to sit on the edge of a chair with their hands tied to their feet.

Amar al-Masri, 43, a Nablus businessman who is married to Kholoud al-Masri, an elected Hamas municipal official, has been held since last month in al-Jenid prison in Nablus. Last Thursday, his son Abdullah, 13, crossed off day 54 on a calendar on the family’s refrigerator.

“What is shocking me is that no charge has been addressed against my husband,” Kholoud said last week, sitting in her home in Nablus, a hijab (head-scarf) covering her hair.

“He is in a Palestinian jail, but we don’t know why.” She has been allowed to visit him only once.

“He said he was hung by his two legs by a rope connected to the ceiling,” Kholoud said. The prisoner’s lawyer said he had seen puffy wrists and legs that supported the testimony, as well as scabs on his legs and hands.

A former prisoner, interviewed at a coffee shop near his third-floor flat in Nablus after he was released at the end of a 50-day spell in prison, described similar experiences.

“They arrested me on fantasy charges that I had rockets,” said the 29-year-old law student, who did not want his name used out of fear the security forces would come after him.

“They tied my hands behind my back, and the rope was connected to a pipe,” he said. “They would stress the rope every 20 seconds. They said if they did it more I would be paralysed.”

He was eventually released without charge. “They [the security forces] told me, ‘You have been steadfast under torture so we have decided you are clean. We will not bother you again.’ ” The Palestinian Authority denied using torture in detention centres. “They are prisoners. We do not give them chocolate and roses,” said Akram Rajoub, head of preventive security in Nablus. “But I can assure you that we don’t use torture methods or shabah methods.”

The Foreign Office expressed concern at the Human Rights Watch revelations.

“The UK is concerned to hear reports of human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories,” a spokesman said. “We are committed to reforming the Palestinian security sector.”

British officials confirmed that the aid money pledged last week would be going to the West Bank security forces, which locals said were engaged in a crackdown on their political opponents in Hamas.

Although Hamas, a conservative Islamic party, was elected to power in January 2006, it has been largely shunned by the West because it refuses to recognise Israel or renounce violence.

Palestinian territory is virtually divided by internal disputes; Hamas’s writ runs in Gaza, while Abbas has appointed an emergency government composed mostly of officials from his Fatah party in the West Bank.

A spokesman for the Department for International Development, which administers the funds paid to the Palestinian Authority, confirmed that money was going to West Bank security forces but said some of it would be used to root out abuses.

“People are aware of irregularities in their behaviour . . . and that’s why we are investing in making them a more professional outfit and a more accountable police force,” the department said.

Human Rights Watch last week called for the aid going to the Palestinian Authority security forces to be made conditional on effective efforts to reduce arbitrary arrests and torture and on improving the system of justice.

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