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Human Rights Watch calls on authorities to investigate claims that security officials tortured blogger; journalists threatened

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Jerusalem, March 10, 2011 - Hamas authorities in Gaza should investigate claims that security officials tortured a blogger and activist and prosecute any officials responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. The blogger had called for demonstrations in favor of ending the split between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Hamas police and plainclothes security officials prevented a demonstration at the Unknown Soldier square in Gaza City on February 28, 2011, without giving any reason, and detained and tortured one of the organizers, Ahmad Arar. Arar, 31, gave Human Rights Watch a detailed accounted of the abuse he said he suffered, an attempt, he said, to make him confess to being a Palestinian Authority agent. Since late February, Hamas internal security officials have threatened, confiscated equipment from, and repeatedly questioned young activists trying to organize similar protests for March 15, the activists said.

"The Hamas government has shown time and again that it cares little about the rights of Palestinians who peacefully challenge its policies," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Hamas says it's fighting for liberation from occupation but is repressing people living under its control."

Other witnesses to the February 28 events told Human Rights Watch that Hamas security officials threatened to assault journalists who tried to cover the protest and that they had assaulted a journalist trying to cover a similar demonstration on February 11.

Arar told Human Rights Watch that on February 6 he and others used social media networks, including Facebook, to issue a "Call for the Homeland" [nidaa al-watan] to end the division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and called for a demonstration on February 28. They notified the Hamas Interior Ministry, but received no reply. On February 14, police came to Arar's home and without providing a reason confiscated his ID card, passport, and mobile phone, which he says they have not returned.

A journalist who asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch that on February 28 at 9 a.m., protesters and journalists began to gather in Gaza City's Unknown Soldier square. About 50 people had arrived by 9:20, he said, when four police jeeps and a civilian car arrived.

At that point, Arar said, "A man in plain clothes came and said he was a police detective [mabahith], and that we should leave immediately."

"When I said we'd informed the Interior Ministry beforehand and were going to protest peacefully, he hit me in the face," Arar said. A policeman then hit Arar in the arm and face with his gun. "Then they pushed me into an unmarked car, kept beating me, and accused me of being a collaborator with the West Bank."

The journalist also saw Hamas police beating Arar and pushing him into the car. "Then the police told the journalists that we should leave and if any of us had taken any pictures they would break his camera," he said.

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