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(Ismael Mohamad / United Press International)

"In the name of sporting solidarity": Top European athletes call for Israel to release Mahmoud Sarsak

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Frédéric Kanouté, then playing for Seville, in 2009.

(Marcelo Del Pozo / Newscom)

“In the name of sporting solidarity, justice and human rights, we declare our support for Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak. As European sportsmen, we believe that every person has the right to a fair and independent trial.”

This call from two dozen top European athletes, including Seville striker Frédéric Kanouté, came as international concern continued to mount over the life of Sarsak, 25, who began a hunger strike in March against his prolonged detention without charge or trial by Israel.

Sarsak was arrested three years ago as he traveled from Gaza to the West Bank to play a match and since then has been banned even from seeing members of his family.

“In the name of civil liberties, justice, and basic human rights, we call for the release of Mahmoud Sarsak,” added the athletes’ statement posted on Kanouté’s website.

Kanouté gained international fame when he lifted his team jersey to reveal a shirt with the word “Palestine”, after scoring a goal during a league match at the height of Israel’s January 2009 attack on Gaza, an action for which he was fined $4,000.

French-born Kanouté, who played for Seville until last month, has also played for Tottenham Hotspur and Mali’s national team, and been named African Footballer of the Year.

Other signatories include Nicolas Anelka, former player for Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Real Madrid, and French sailor Jo Le Guen.

Last week, football legend and anti-racism campaigner Eric Cantona, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and FIFPro, the world association of professional footballers, all called on Israel to free Sarsak.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority run Palestinian Football Association has called on UEFA to revoke its decision to allow Israel to host the 2013 Under 21 tournament. In a letter to The Guardian, former UK Member of Parliament John Austin also called on UEFA to “reconsider its decision to hold its under-21 championship in Israel in 2013.”

Amnesty: Sarsak must be moved to a civilian hospital or freed to save his life

Amnesty International has issued a renewed call on Israel that Sarsak, “who is at risk of death after more than 90 days on hunger strike in protest against his detention by Israel should immediately be admitted to a civilian hospital or released so that he can receive life-saving medical care.

Information scarce as Israel blocks access

Last week, it was reported that after more than 80 days on hunger strike and in grave medical condition, Sarsak had agreed to take milk for a few days until Israel’s high court reviewed his case, which was supposed to occur on Thursday, 14 June.

However, little solid information has been available, as Israel has continued to block Sarsak’s access to independent physicians and human rights groups.

On Thursday, Phyisicians for Human Rights - Israel posted an update on its Facebook page:

Hunger Strike update: Despite his deteriorating health, the Israeli District Court today rejected appeals filed by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel requesting that Mahmoud Sarsak, who is now on his 88th day of hunger strike, be transferred to a civilian hospital and that he be permitted family visits.

The District Court also rejected an appeal to transfer Akram Rikhawi, who is on his 64th day of hunger strike today, to a civilian hospital. Akram suffers from many chronic illnesses and is also in critical condition.

Need for solidarity to keep up pressure for hunger strikers’ release

Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer continued to exert efforts on behalf of Sarsak and fellow hunger striker Akram Rikhawi despite Israel’s continued isolation of the men. A third prisoner, Samer al-Barq, has been on renewed hunger strike for more than three weeks after Israel renewed his administrative detention in violation of an agreement:

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Latest Solidarity actions in Europe

Meanwhile, solidarity actions took place last week in several cities, including in Paris, London and Rome.