At least four university students have been detained in a crackdown by PA security forces during the last six months, the group notes in a statement, adding that they were targeted “apparently for their affiliation with Hamas or political criticism [of the Palestinian Authority].”
“It is deeply worrying that students are being held by Palestinian forces for no apparent reason other than their connection to Hamas or their opinions,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director, comments in the statement.
“Palestinians should be able to express critical political opinions without being arrested or beaten,” she adds.
The PA — which has been undertaking security coordination with Israeli occupation forces — has time and again been roundly criticized by human rights groups for its persecution of political opponents. In some instances, PA security forces have violently attacked and tortured people known for their critical voices.
Islamic Wafaa won the university’s student council elections two weeks ago, triumphing over the Fatah-aligned Martyr Yasser Arafat bloc in a 26-19 vote.
Student elections, journalist Dalia Hatuqa wrote at Al Jazeera English, “are often used as a litmus test for support for politicians and parties, especially at Birzeit, an institution known for its political activism and academic prominence.”
Around 6:00pm on 25 April, as Salim attempted to enter the campus, he was arrested by Palestinian “preventive security” officers who forced him into a civilian car. Upon arriving at security headquarters in Ramallah, officers beat and threatened the student.
“Two different interrogators came in,” Salim told Human Rights Watch. “They started cursing my mother, cursing my sisters, slapping me around. Then they punched me, while asking questions about how Hamas won the elections.”
In addition to being denied food and water, Salim was forced to stand “with his arms and legs spread apart from 11:00pm to 10:30am, then continued the interrogation until they released him at about 5pm,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Another student, Abu Aram, was arrested and accused of “sectarian incitement” after being interrogated for 24 hours, although the PA forces did not formally charge him.
Adnan al-Dmiri, a spokesperson for the PA security forces, dismissed the accusation that the students were being targeted for their political views. “We never arrest people for their speech or for their political affiliations,” he told Human Rights Watch, claiming that the students were arrested for “incitement of sectarian violence and other criminal charges.”
Human Rights Watch points out that the PA has “not made any concrete allegations or presented any evidence in the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch that the individuals arrested were involved in or advocated violence.”
Another 25 students from Birzeit and other universities across the West Bank were arrested or asked to come to interrogation following the elections, according to Addameer, a Ramallah-based prisoners rights group.
Musab Zaloum, another Hamas-affiliated student at Birzeit, told Human Rights Watch that PA officers raided his home on 25 April, though he was not present at the time. He has yet to be arrested.
This wave of arrests comes after a months-long crackdown on outspoken Palestinian students and activists.
As reported by The Electronic Intifada at the time, Bara al-Qadi, a 22-year-old undergraduate at Birzeit, was arrested by the PA in January this year and November 2014, both times over his “statuses” on Facebook and critical posts he wrote on various news websites.
Both times he was informed that he could expect to be arrested again if he continued to speak out against the PA, his sister Tasneem told The Electronic Intifada at the time of his arrest in January.
Al-Qadi, who is head of the Birzeit Media Club, has been targeted “because his political views [are against] the PA’s policies,” Tasneem said.
In December, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), criticized the PA for harassing “journalists, media students and activists for their writings on Facebook.”
MADA called on “Palestinian officials to put an end to these escalated violations against media freedoms by the security forces.”