Jurists concerned by arrest of Palestinian Human Rights Commissioner

The ICJ is deeply concerned by the arrest and possible torture of Dr. Iyad Sarraj, Commissioner-General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen’s Rights (PICCR) and Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

Dr. Sarraj was arrested at his home at 12:30 a.m. Monday, 10 June 1996, by Palestinian Criminal Police without a proper legal warrant and held at the police headquarters in Gaza. On Tuesday, the police searched the Gaza Community Mental Health Centre, confiscated computer diskettes and documents, and ordered the office of Dr. Sarraj closed until the end of the investigation. On Wednesday, in a note received by the PICCR, Dr. Sarraj reportedly wrote: “I was beaten… I feel that my life is in danger. Rescue me… the situation is grave.”

Dr. Sarraj was formally charged and not allowed to confer with his attorneys until 3:30 p.m., Thursday 13 June, in violation of Palestinian Penal Law. Dr. Sarraj’s attorneys have stated that he was “in very poor condition, both physically and mentally.”

Dr. Sarraj was then presented before the Magistrates’ Court that was asked by the Attorney-General, Mr. Khaled Al-Qidra, to remand him for another 15 days on the grounds of a criminal offence, which according to a press statement by the FICCR is fabricated. The Court ordered his release on bail provided that he will not be arrested for any other offence.

To the surprise of Dr. Sarraj’s attorneys, the Attorney-General had an hour earlier obtained an order from a Palestinian military court to detain Dr. Sarraj for 15 days on charges of assaulting a police officer. Therefore, Dr. Sarraj was not released.

The ICJ suspects that the assault charge was brought against Dr. Sarraj in order to circumvent the decision of the civilian court and to counter Dr. Sarraj’s allegation of torture. The ICJ finds it deeply disturbing that the Attorney-General of the Palestinian Authority resorted to a military court to detain Dr. Sarraj.

This has been the second arrest of Dr. Sarraj in three weeks. The first arrest took place on 18 May following an interview Dr. Sarraj gave to the New York Times. In the interview that appeared on 6 June, Dr. Sarraj accused the Palestinian Authority of being “corrupt, dictatorial, and repressive,” and of committing torture and other human rights violations. He was held for nine days and was released by order of President Yasser Arafat following an intensive local and international campaign. Speaking at Oxford University last week, Mr. Arafat said that he ordered the release of Dr. Sarraj after he had sent him an apology and a retraction. However, Dr. Sarraj wrote to Mr. Arafat expressing his surprise over the statement and said he had only apologised for the personal pain the newspaper interview may have caused Mr. Arafat and that he stood by the facts and statements he made.

It is, thus, evident that Dr. Sarraj has been arrested twice for exercising his right to free expression. The ICJ, therefore, calls upon the Palestinian Authority to speedily take the appropriate measures to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of Dr. Sarraj and to immediately release him in light of the lack of concrete evidence of criminal activities. An investigation should be initiated into Dr. Sarraj’s allegation of torture and if proven to be true, those responsible should be prosecuted with the full force of the law. The ICJ also calls on the Palestinian Authority to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and the freedom from torture for all persons living in the areas under its jurisdiction.

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