Israeli harassment campaign masquerades as murder probe in Jenin theater

Israeli forces have used the investigation into the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis as an opportunity to disrupt the Freedom Theater’s work, some say.

Anne Paq The Electronic Intifada

JERUSALEM (IPS) - Israeli soldiers and security forces have conducted a string of arrests and violent raids at Jenin’s renowned Freedom Theater over recent weeks, in their investigation into the murder of actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis.

According to those close to the theater, however, the Israeli authorities’ actions hint at a purpose other than solving the ongoing murder investigation: impeding the work of the theater itself.

“It just seems like tactics to damage us. I think if it’s not their main goal, it’s a definite bonus that they are encouraging,” said Jacob Gough, the acting general manager of the Freedom Theater.

“An investigation into murder should be done in certain ways, not kidnapping people, torturing them and trying to make them confess. That’s trying to do a quick fix or something darker, something more sinister. People should have rights. In criminal investigations you’re meant to be innocent until proven guilty, but Israel treats Palestinians as guilty until proven innocent,” Gough said.

Juliano Mer-Khamis, an Israeli citizen born to a Palestinian father and Jewish-Israeli mother, was shot and killed in April of this year while he sat in his car near the Freedom Theater in Jenin’s refugee camp. A well-known actor, Mer-Khamis co-founded the theater in 2006 as a way to empower Palestinian youth in the camp to express themselves creatively through art.

In the past few months, the Israeli authorities have arrested various members of the Freedom Theater, including a twenty-year-old lead actor, broken windows and equipment, conducted night raids involving the shooting of live ammunition, and intimidated and ransacked the homes of individuals affiliated with the theater.

Pressure to confess

The chairman of the theater’s board Bilal Saadi and the theater’s head technician Adnan Naghnaghiye were arrested on 27 July. According to Gough, both men were subjected to 16-hour interrogations, sleep deprivation and inhumane treatment in prison, were denied access to a lawyer and were pressured by Israeli authorities to confess to the murder.

“The court ordered their release. In the court documents, it states that there is absolutely no evidence, nothing whatsoever, to link them to the murder,” Gough said, adding that all the people affiliated with the theater gave statements to the Palestinian Authority immediately after the murder, and have cooperated with its investigation.

“What are they going to do? They’re going to go through every one of us until they run out of people? There’s no evidence to link anyone from the theater to murder,” Gough said. “There’s a psychological effect of people wondering if they’re going to be the next one taken. But nothing is going to be worse than losing Juliano. Having people arrested does affect us, but it’s not going to stop us.”

The PA has jurisdiction over the Jenin refugee camp, a 0.42 square kilometer area in the north of the occupied West Bank that is home to more than 16,000 registered Palestinian refugees, almost half of them under the age of 18. The PA began a criminal investigation immediately after Mer-Khamis was killed in April.

According to Abeer Baker, a lawyer representing the Mer-Khamis family, the PA investigation is still ongoing but it has uncovered very few details so far. The Israeli investigation, which also began soon after Mer-Khamis’ killing, is also ongoing and is being conducted jointly by the Israeli army, police and Shabak security agency, which is also known as the Shin Bet.

Why is secret service involved?

“I can’t see why the Shabak is involved because it’s a murder case; it’s not something that endangers the security of Israel. Jul was killed by somebody who has nothing to do with the security of Israel. It is something personal here,” Baker said, adding that the interrogation methods used by the Shabak have left the Mer-Khamis family concerned that a false confession will be coerced from someone.

“We know how the Shabak investigates and we oppose the whole idea of taking people from their homes and preventing them from seeing a lawyer and isolating them. It’s not something we agree with, even if these people are suspects. The minute you deprive the person of his own rights, he might confess to doing something he didn’t do. We, as a family, will not believe that confession. We will have suspicions of everything that was taken by lack of due process,” she said.

Baker explained that she and the Mer-Khamis family condemn the Israeli authorities’ attacks on the Freedom Theater. Still, she said that the focus must return to finding out who murdered Mer-Khamis and that Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp must cooperate in order to bring the killer to justice.

“Since the Jenin camp denounced the murder from the first minute, I think there is nothing wrong with asking the people to please cooperate and let us know who killed Jul,” Baker said.

“We will work on that, to bring the focus back to who killed Juliano. Jul, a person who gave us his soul, was killed as one of us, as a Palestinian, and we should be accountable for that and put whoever is responsible for this in prison.”

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