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Hamas authorities abuse, harass supporters of "Tamarod Gaza" activist group

Hamas authorities in Gaza have been harassing Palestinians suspected of supporting the “Tamarod Gaza” activist group, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should stop the harassment, allow the group to hold demonstrations, and investigate the alleged torture of Tamarod's supporters. Tamarod ('Rebel') has criticized what it calls poor governance by Hamas and abuses by security services, and has called on Hamas to relinquish power and hold elections.

Human Rights Watch spoke with four men detained by Hamas police and Internal Security authorities on suspicion that they supported the group and three others who were summoned for questioning since the group published a video online in July. Three of the men said interrogators tortured them because they had made pro-Tamarod statements on Facebook or otherwise indicated support for the group. Others described threats and harassment.

“Hamas's attempts to silence Tamarod fit a grim pattern of repressing free speech and peaceful assembly in Gaza,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Hamas Interior Ministry should allow Palestinians to hold peaceful demonstrations and stop persecuting critics.”

Tamarod called off a demonstration planned for November 11, 2013, because, according to members of the group, they feared Hamas security services would use excessive force to disperse it. A political activist in Gaza told Human Rights Watch that Tamarod had not requested a permit from the Hamas authorities to hold the demonstration because “people were too afraid” they would be arrested and ill-treated. In August, Hamas authorities briefly detained the activist after he requested a permit to hold a demonstration, ordered him to cancel the demonstration, and denied the permit without explanation, he said. The Hamas authorities have never presented any evidence suggesting that Tamarod advocates or is associated with violence.

A university student in his twenties told Human Rights Watch that Hamas Internal Security officials arrested him on September 4, interrogated and at times tortured him over the course of 11 days, and detained him until September 23. Human Rights Watch has not publicly identified him or any of the Tamarod supporters interviewed due to concern for their safety.

“After a lot of questions, it turned out my crime was that I had clicked 'Like' on a Tamarod page on Facebook,” the student said. Interrogators put a cloth bag on his head, beat him, forced him to stand up for five hours at a time, and repeatedly suspended him off the ground by tying his arms above him, he said:

They forced me to give up my phone and my Facebook and Hotmail passwords and asked me about my contacts and my [Facebook] page for three days. The daily routine was standing, interrogation, and praying. I was bagged the whole time. I can't stop remembering what happened to me. Since my release, sleep doesn't come until dawn. I keep thinking about what happened.

The student's mother told Human Rights Watch that the authorities refused to acknowledge his whereabouts for the first week of his detention. “Finally they called us and told us he needed a change of underwear and money to buy food at Ansar [detention facility]. They didn't tell us he needed a lawyer. It took ten days before the clothes were handed to him.”

Hamas security officials in Gaza City summoned the student again on September 30, again put a bag over his head, and questioned him for four more hours, he said.

Another Tamarod supporter, a journalist in his twenties, told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of September 3, Hamas Internal Security officials summoned him to their offices in Gaza City, where interrogators put a cloth bag over his head, questioned him about the Tamarod Facebook page, suspended him from the ceiling by his arms, forced him to stand in a painful position for about an hour, and beat him:

They accused me of being Fatah [Hamas' rival political movement], but I said I'm just a [Fatah] supporter and nothing else, and I didn't know anything specific about the organization. They moved on to asking me about Tamarod and said to talk about my role, that there was no need for me to get beaten.

The journalist said he refused to speak about the group and was released that night, but summoned to appear again at the same facility the following day. “I waited for two hours, then they put a bag over my head and beat me,” he said. “The interrogator was yelling at me that Tamarod was bad, that I should feel guilty. They made me give them my email and Facebook passwords and took my journalist pass.” Internal Security officials released the journalist that night, and later returned his journalist pass.

A third Tamarod supporter, an engineer in his forties, told Human Rights Watch that Hamas security forces summoned him on September 10 for questioning. His interrogators accused him of working for Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president, and of “having received Tamarod materials, fliers and things from [group members driving] a Jeep,” the engineer said. “I am in favor of Fatah, but that's all. They kept telling me to confess, confess, to tell them about what happened three days ago. But I had no idea what happened three days ago.” He said he was forced to sit in a child's chair, then moved to another room and ordered to stand up:

It was very hot. I waited for hours, maybe the whole night, I don't know. I stopped being able to hear. My legs were numb [from standing] so I bent over a bit. That's when I was hit on the neck, from behind, and told I would be beaten again if I did not stand straight. I managed [to stand for] another 30 minutes, had to rest and was hit again. I became so tired I just lay down. I didn't care if they shot me.

The engineer said his interrogation continued the following day. “After I denied knowing anything about a Jeep with Tamarod materials, someone came in and asked if I was in trouble,” he said. “Someone else said yes, and then they hit me so hard that I fell over backward in my chair, with my feet in the air. They started hitting my toes with a small hammer. It was very painful.”

The security officials released the engineer that night, but summoned him to deposit his laptop computer on September 16. He was questioned again and told not to “spread lies” about his ill-treatment during interrogation, but he was not abused further, he said. In the late morning of September 17, he said, “they called me on the phone to come in again so they could close the case.” After he waited 30 minutes, security officials blindfolded him and questioned him again about his alleged Fatah affiliations. They released him later that day.

A second journalist, in his forties, and a political activist in his late twenties told Human Rights Watch that they received anonymous death threats over the phone for their support of Tamarod. The journalist said that after he had written an article supporting Tamarod, he received a call on July 4 from a caller with a blocked number, who “identified himself as a member of Qassam [Hamas's armed wing] and said they would kill me.” He said a Hamas official later assured him that “the threat was not officially sanctioned.”

The activist said that he joined the Tamarod Gaza group's Facebook page when it released a video online on July 3, and “I got anonymous threats on the phone about cutting out my tongue and giving me 'a last warning.' ” The activist, who says he supports neither Hamas nor Fatah, called the police in Gaza to request protection, but on July 15 Hamas security officers arrested, questioned, and abused him, due in part to suspicions that he supported Tamarod and in part to his role in a demonstration in Gaza against Israel's mistreatment of its Bedouin citizens that day.

Security officials released the activist that evening, but summoned him for further questioning the next day, July 16. On both occasions, he said, “they asked about Tamarod, my personal life, demonstrations, and claimed that I was connected to Ramallah,” the seat of the Palestinian Authority. “It was humiliating. They threatened me and wanted me to sign papers promising to stop my activities. They made me sit painfully in a small chair for children, for hours, before releasing me.”

Hamas police summoned him again to a Gaza City police station at 9 a.m. on August 1, the date of a planned demonstration:

I asked if they had a warrant, and they told me not to worry, it was just for me to pick up a permit for the demonstration. When I arrived they told me the permit was denied and I had to cancel the demonstration. They let me go but I was picked up again, by intelligence. And then the police called to ask why I hadn't cancelled the demonstration yet. Luckily my phone broke while I was with the intelligence, so I actually couldn't cancel it.

The activist said he continued to receive anonymous phone calls and threating text messages until mid-September, when one message threatened that “no more warnings are coming, but they will act.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed another activist, a man his fifties, who has written in support of Tamarod. Hamas Internal Security interrogated him on August 18 and threatened to charge him with libel on the basis of an article he wrote criticizing Hamas in 2012. It was not clear whether his interrogation and the threat of criminal prosecution were related to his support for Tamarod.

The demonstrations Tamarod called for November 11 would have occurred on the ninth anniversary of the death of Yasir Arafat, the former Palestinian president and leader of Fatah. Hamas ousted the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority from Gaza in 2007.

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