(Jerusalem) – Palestinian authorities have taken no action to investigate an assault by their security forces on April 12, 2014, but have brought charges against four victims, Human Rights Watch said today.
Multiple witnesses gave consistent accounts of the police using unnecessary and disproportionate force against two men who were involved in the peaceful protest at a theater in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and two other men and a woman who tried to help them. Police detained the four men overnight, and they were charged the next day with “disturbing the peace” and “provoking a riot,” and ordered to appear for a hearing on May 28.
“It’s absurd that the Palestinian justice system is prosecuting the victims of police brutality rather than their attackers,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Palestine should start living up to its human rights obligations by exonerating the victims and holding the police to account.”
The men’s arrests and prosecution violate their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 2, Palestine acceded to core international human rights conventions that oblige the government to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and to investigate and punish abuses by security forces. Palestinian civil police forces in the West Bank, who receive training and other support from a European Union program, EUPOL-COPPS, have repeatedly used excessive force against demonstrators in Ramallah.
Shortly before a scheduled performance on April 12 in Ramallah’s Al-Kasaba Theatre by a dance troupe visiting from India, a political activist, Zeid Shuaibi, 25, stood up in the audience and criticized the event. Shuaibi works with the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, a group that advocates a cultural boycott of Israel by foreign artists. Fifteen other protesters were also in the audience. Shuaibi told the audience that the committee had asked the Palestinian Ministry of Culture to cancel the performance because the dance troupe had performed in Tel Aviv, and criticized the Culture Ministry for allowing the performance to proceed, he and several witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
For 10 to 15 minutes, several other protesters voiced similar criticisms. Some audience members not affiliated with the protest voiced their agreement and some walked out of the theater. Other audience members objected to the protesters’ speeches, but no one used insults, harsh language, or violence, witnesses said.
Shuaibi said that men in civilian clothes ordered him to leave, then were joined by a policeman who restrained him while the other men beat him. Three of Shuaibi’s friends who were in the audience, only one of whom said he was involved in the protest action, tried to accompany him and shouted at the security officials to stop beating him, whereupon the officials assaulted them as well, they said.
Police put the four men into one of the three police vehicles parked outside the theater, they said, and assaulted a woman who tried to accompany them to the police station. The woman, Dr. Dima Amin, 43, a gynecologist who is not affiliated with the boycott activists, told Human Rights Watch that she was attending the performance with her husband and 6-year-old daughter and that police assaulted her when she tried to intervene.
In a statement published on April 13, the Culture Ministry accused the protesters of “violence” and using “insulting language,” and said police removed them to maintain “order and public safety.” The participants and other witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed denied these claims. No violence or abusive language appears in two videos, viewed by Human Rights Watch, in which members of the audience and protesters filmed the incident on their mobile phones.
The four men said that the police drove them to the main Ramallah police station, where they saw several of the plain-clothes officers who had beaten them in the theater. For two hours, police officers refused to answer the men’s questions about whether they were under arrest and whether they had broken any laws. After midnight, the men said, the deputy director of the police detective unit told the men that they would be released if they signed pledges “not to violate Palestinian laws or participate in disobedience,” on pain of an unspecified fine. The men refused, seeing it as an admission of guilt, they said.
The police detained the men overnight and took them the next morning to Ramallah Magistrates Court, where a prosecutor charged the men with disturbing the peace and provoking a riot under the Jordanian Criminal Procedure Code, in force in the West Bank, according to the men and local news reports.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury.
“There was no apparent justification for Palestinian police to violently repress the protest at the Kasaba theater,” Stork said. “Foreign donors should make it clear that their support for the Palestinian police will not continue without accountability for such abuses.”