Prisoner’s death in Palestinian jail highlights violations, loss of legitimacy

Protest against prisoner conditions in Israeli jails will not prevent anger and delegitimization of PA law enforcement system for its own violations.

A Palestinian prisoner being held on charges connected to a stabbing died in a Palestinian Authority jail in Jericho on Friday, according to a Jerusalem Post and Ma’an News Agency. The articles report that the Palestinian attorney general ordered and launched an investigation into the death and an autopsy. Palestinian officials have said that Ayman Samarah, 40, was not tortured, but suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure and was taken to a hospital on Friday after being arrested; there are conflicting reports about whether he died in prison or in the hospital and the Post cites Palestinians in Jericho saying he was beaten by other prisoners. Families of prisoners have reportedly held a sit-in near the prison.

The PA law enforcement system has been guilty of human rights violations its treatment of detainees in the past. The practice of arresting people and holding them without charges or trial has become familiar in Israel and Palestine, writes Human Rights Watch – familiar, one might add, for Palestinians. Also in 2008, a 27-year old died in PA custody; the Palestinian Center for Human Rights called for an investigation.

In a recent and highly publicized case, Zakaria Zubeidi – a former militant who turned to non-violent cultural resistance and co-founded the Freedom Theater in Jenin – was arrested last May and held for roughly five months without trial. He spoke of torture, solitary confinement and denial of access to lawyers, and went on a hunger strike to protest his detention before being released on bail last October.

For the time being, the Palestinian judicial system appears to retain some measure of legitimacy among the Palestinian people. When Zubeidi was released, he gave a press conference reiterating his accusations, but he also affirmed his faith in the system.

“Zubeidi stated his belief in the fairness of the Palestinian judiciary. His message to the judges was that the press conference is constructive criticism to avoid future mistakes and injustices.

He added that his only weapon during his stay in prison was going on hunger strike. Zubeidi sent a message to the Palestinian judiciary, saying: “My case is in your hands. If you find any violation of the law, I am under the law and ready for any sentence handed me by the judiciary…”

It is logical that people are more likely to affirm the legitimacy of even a highly flawed law enforcement authority when they perceive it as their own, in contrast to that of an occupying power. Arafat Jaradat, who died in Israeli custody last week, has become a symbol of the hated occupation and that is why his death sparked riots verging on another Intifada. That’s also why years of tiresome forensic medical haggling about the actual cause of death that are sure to come will make no difference to the political ramifications, just like the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah at a demonstration in Bil’in 2011 and Mohammed Al-Durrah, the child killed in the second Intifada, before her.

But the mistreatment of prisoners in Palestinian custody is deeply worrying for numerous reasons. First and foremost, because every detainee, anywhere, has the right to due process and sound treatment while in custody. Generally, a 40-year old who has diabetes and hypertension (as reported) should not drop dead. The Palestinian Authority must take responsibility for a man in its custody through a genuine, transparent investigation, as it has promised.

Additionally, the more Palestinian Authority institutions mimic the worst methods of the Israeli occupation, the more it will be discredited in the eyes of Palestinians, if it isn’t already. Many Palestinians already view the PA as the outsourcing contractors for the Israeli security establishment – in other words, collaborators.

In response, the PA is clearly not interested in creating open and critical debate; the Jerusalem Post reports that at least one journalist attempting to cover the sit-in strike in Jericho following Samara’s death was detained and questioned for hours.

This cycle – loss of institutional legitimacy and the attempt to stifle criticism – creates rage. These ingredients could contribute to the collapse of such institutions at a time when Palestine has just asserted its statehood on the global stage through the November UN vote. If the Palestinian leadership is committed to statebuilding in defiance of occupation (and I personally believe this to be a healthy course of action no matter what the ultimate political solution will be), protecting human rights in state institutions must be top priority. Creating an open environment for exposure and criticism of violations must not be viewed as a threat to cynical political authorities who fear losing their grip on power, but as an essential foundation for a healthy society now and in the future – under any political leadership.