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Jailed American Begins Hunger Strike

Mideast: Yasser Arafat reportedly ordered detention of journalist who was broadcasting legislative debates critical of the Palestinian leader.

May 25, 1997|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A prominent Palestinian American journalist has launched a hunger strike to protest his detention without charges by the Palestinian Authority, but a move aimed at winning his release was in the works Saturday.

The journalist, Daoud Kuttab, was summoned to the police station in Palestinian-ruled Ramallah on Tuesday and detained, apparently because of a battle he has waged against attempts by the Palestinian Authority to jam his live television broadcasts of debates by the Palestinian legislature. The lawmakers are often fiercely critical of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

A spokesman for Jerusalem's Al Quds University, whose independent television station has carried the debates, said Saturday that the university's board had decided to stop the broadcasts, at least temporarily, in hopes of winning Kuttab's release.

"Daoud is an employee of Al Quds, and we don't want anything to happen to him," said Imad abu Kishik, who accompanied Kuttab to Ramallah on the night of his arrest but was forced to leave without him. He said there was no immediate response from the Palestinian Authority.

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The Palestinian Authority has no apparent jurisdiction over Kuttab, who holds a U.S. passport and lives in Jerusalem with a permanent residency card.

Nonetheless, Palestinian Prosecutor General Khaled Kidra said Saturday that Kuttab is being held because he "violated the Palestinian press law." But Kidra would not specify which section of the law is at issue or comment on when Kuttab might be released or charged. "The case is still under investigation," he said.

Col. Firas Ameleh, the Ramallah police chief, said Arafat ordered the detention. Although police at first allowed Kuttab to see relatives and U.S. consular officers--and to speak with at least one reporter by phone--Ameleh said all visitors must now receive permission from the Palestinian leader.

In a brief interview Wednesday, the day after his arrest, Kuttab said he had been told nothing about the reasons for his detention but assumed it involved his broadcasts of legislative sessions. In the meeting the day before, members of the Legislative Council angrily assailed the Palestinian Authority and Arafat over alleged corruption and misuse of funds.

"I assume that airing that particular session aroused some angry phone calls or complaints," Kuttab said, after Ameleh agreed to let him take the call. "Yesterday, for the first time in a while, we were not jammed, and then I get arrested.

"I think we are going through a challenging period for Palestinian democracy," he said, adding that he did not believe that his words were being monitored. "I think, like anything in the world, freedoms are never given on a silver platter. You have to fight for them. I think that's what this is all about."

Kuttab, the director of Al Quds University's Institute of Modern Media, launched a project two months ago to broadcast the legislative sessions live on Al Quds Educational Television. The project is funded in part by a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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In an interview earlier this month, Kuttab said his transmissions of several recent sessions had been jammed by the official Palestinian television, "which is not allowed to broadcast the meetings and doesn't want anyone else to."

"Our engineer said someone was riding our wave [frequency], broadcasting a black screen on top of ours," Kuttab said.

He said he confronted Nabil Amer, supervisor of the Palestinian Broadcasting Co., who denied jamming the broadcasts and indignantly suggested the two visit the control room to prove it. But when they went to inspect the official transmitter, Kuttab said, a Palestinian guard tried to block their view of the monitor with the offending black rectangle.

Kuttab said he then began to distribute videocassettes of the sessions to smaller independent stations throughout the West Bank that often air them the same night.

Abu Kishik, the university spokesman, said the board decided to suspend the live broadcasts while the university awaits formal permission to resume from the Palestinian Ministry of Information. Kuttab's family said he had received approval from the parliament speaker, Ahmed Qureia.

Beth Kuttab, the journalist's sister-in-law, said she believed Kuttab would have conflicting feelings about the university's action.

"I'm sure Daoud would be very disappointed because it appears to be a capitulation to Yasser Arafat's wishes," she said. "On the other hand, it might play in his [Kuttab's] favor because then they would have no reason to keep holding him. That's what we're hoping."

She said Kuttab began refusing food after he was denied a visit from his three young children and other family members on Friday evening.

"He could see out the window that the police were barring us from entering, and he hung a sign out to let us know he was starting a hunger strike," Beth Kuttab said. "We're very concerned."

U.S. officials also said they have been denied visits with Kuttab for the last two days, despite repeated attempts to see him. The U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Edward Abington Jr., has sent a letter to Arafat demanding that Kuttab be released and is trying to arrange a meeting to discuss the matter.

Times staff writer Marjorie Miller and Muhammed El-Hasan of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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