Gazans face 'serious abuses' in criminal justice system

"The beatings continued for several days"

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip face "serious abuses" in the justice system, according to a report from pressure group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The violations included arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture, and unfair trials, HRW said.

The Gaza Strip has been governed by the Islamist movement, Hamas, since it seized power there in 2007.

Hamas's deputy foreign minister said the allegations were being investigated but that the situation had improved.

"Maybe we have some violations from time to time, but it is not a widespread phenomenon," Ghazi Hamad told the BBC.

"I can confirm that there is no torture and we are trying to follow international law in all jails and prisons," he added.

Mr Hamad also stressed that in Gaza there was "no kind of political arrest... or any kind of punishment or torture of political activists", something which has been frequently alleged.

'Impunity'

HRW's report details cases of alleged torture and deaths in detention, other cases where due process was not followed and also criticises the practice of trying civilians in military courts.

One case cited is that of Abdel Karim Shrair, who was executed in May 2011 for allegedly collaborating with Israel.

HRW says the charges were partially based on confessions that appear to have been obtained using torture.

Analysis

Allegations of torture and police brutality against Hamas are not new. Many people in Gaza have a story to tell about rough justice at the hands of Hamas. This week, I met one young man who told me he had been arrested arbitrarily many times in the past five years and regularly beaten. He said police had used cigarette lighters to burn his legs and had threatened his family.

Human Rights Watch does not mince its words saying the criminal justice system here "reeks of injustice". But the group also accepts things have improved in recent years. Also significant is that Hamas has allowed HRW into Gaza to carry out the study and even hold a press conference.

Hamas is aware that allegations of police brutality and abuse have fueled anger in uprisings across the Middle East during the so called Arab Spring. It does not want to tarred with the same brush as Hosni Mubarak's Egypt or Bashar al-Assad's Syria. It is worth noting that many Hamas members say they have been the victims of torture themselves, either at the hands of Israel or rival Palestinian security forces from the Fatah movement.

"After five years of Hamas rule in Gaza, its criminal justice system reeks of injustice, routinely violates detainees' rights," said Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East director.

"Hamas should stop the kinds of abuses that Egyptians, Syrians, and others in the region have risked their lives to bring to an end."

Hamas officials claim that investigations are mounted into abuses by security services and says hundreds of members of the security services have been disciplined since 2007, the report says.

However, details of cases in which officials were censured have not been made public, according to HRW, adding that Hamas authorities have in practice granted "impunity to abusive security services".

Human rights groups have also criticised the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, for abuses in the Palestinian-run justice system in the West Bank.

HRW notes that "Palestinian political rivalry remains a significant factor behind many Hamas abuses against detainees in Gaza," and adds that Hamas members in the West Bank face the risk of arbitrary arrest.

However, the report adds that "human rights lawyers in Gaza said that they have continued to receive the same kinds of allegations of abuse" even after an attempted reconciliation between the two sides last year.

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