Human rights groups and foreign diplomats were kept out of the closed-door Palestinian court hearing. Members of U.S Congress demand that Abbas release Amro, an EU-declared human rights defender, who was arrested for criticizing the PA on social media.
By Yael Marom
The Palestinian District Court in Hebron on Thursday ordered that well-known human rights activist Issa Amro remain in jail for an additional four days. Amro, co-founder of Hebron-based anti-occupation group Youth Against Settlements, was arrested on Monday by the Palestinian Preventative Security Service, allegedly for criticizing the Palestinian government. He is being accused of sedition and incitement against the PA.
Hours later, nine United States members of Congress sent a letter to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urging him to “immediately drop the charges and release the internationally renowned human rights defender Mr. Amro from his unjust detention.”
Amro began a hunger strike on Tuesday, and has said that he is refusing medical care.
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Prior to the hearing in Hebron court on Thursday, the Palestinian general prosecutor held a meeting with Amro’s attorney, and representatives of Palestinian human rights organizations Al Haq and Addameer. During the meeting, Amro said that since his arrest he has been held in a shower instead of a normal prison cell, and that guards have threatened to beat and even kill him.
In the court hearing, the Palestinian prosecution asked the court to extend Amro’s remand, and added a new accusation of “cyber crimes.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently signed an “Electronic Crimes” decree, effectively curtailing what little free speech existed for Palestinians under Palestinian law, and which was believed to target online dissent against the PA, particularly on social media. The new law was roundly criticized by rights groups in Palestine and around the world. Israel also regularly arrests Palestinians for posts on social media.
Thursday’s hearing was held behind closed doors. Amro’s family members, representatives of Palestinian human rights groups, and foreign diplomats who came to support the EU-declared human rights defender, were not allowed into the courtroom.
It appears that the Preventative Security Service and its cyber division need more time to review the host of interviews Amro has given over the years and his various publications on social media. His mobile phone and personal computer have been confiscated and it would appear a thorough search is being conducted.
Thursday afternoon, after Amro was returned to custody, he called one of his friends in Youth Against Settlements and said he had been told that if a motion for his release were to be filed, the PSS would not oppose it. His lawyer rushed to file the motion with the court, but as of the time of publication the authorities had not responded.
Prior to his arrest on Monday, Amro gave the following statement to a colleague at Youth Against Settlements:
“All my writings on social media are part of the freedom of opinion and expression stipulated by the Palestinian Basic Law and are protected by all international laws and conventions,” Amro said, according to a press release Youth Against Settlements sent out on Monday night. “My arrest will not affect my defense of human rights and the rights of journalists to exercise their work freely and without pressure from the government.”
Amnesty International put out a statement Monday calling for Amro’s immediate release, saying it was “outrageous that a prominent human rights defender has been arrested simply for voicing his opinion online.”
“Criticizing the authorities should not be a criminal offence,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty. “Issa Amro’s arrest is the latest evidence that the Palestinian authorities are determined to continue with their repressive campaign against free speech.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also published a statement Monday expressing concern at Amro’s arrest and urging his release.
The Palestinian security forces are not the only ones targeting Amro for his defiant politics and activism. Amro is also currently on trial in an Israeli military court, where almost all of the 18 charges are related to his political activity and nonviolent action. Under Israeli military law, there is no legal avenue for Palestinians to protest or demonstrate politically. Amro’s activism, much of which is the basis for his current charges, has been reported by +972 here, here, here and here.
In a video interview with +972 Magazine late last year, Amro spoke about the charges against him and why he thinks Israel wants to suppress his and others’ nonviolent resistance to the occupation, particularly in Hebron.
Thirty-two U.S. congresspeople sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month urging him to intervene on Amro’s behalf with regards to the Israeli charges against him.
Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man contributed to this report. A version of this article also appears on Local Call in Hebrew. Read it here.