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In Gaza, prisoners twice over

Palestinians are being squeezed by the Israeli blockade and Hamas' 'Islamizing' actions.

June 27, 2010|Bill Van Esveld | Bill Van Esveld is a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The slim owner of Gaza City's Gallery cafe has sharp eyes and a sharp tongue. It's easy to imagine him conversing with artists and actors -- he is also a theater director -- far into the night. But he crossed a line. He allowed female patrons at his cafe to smoke hookah pipes and to talk with men. He ignored demands by plainclothes police to rein in "immoral" behavior. In early May, police interrogated and accused him of having extramarital affairs. To persuade him to confess, they beat him with a 2-inch-thick, leather-covered bamboo rod for 50 minutes, and later forced him to stand on one leg for two hours.

The blockade of the Gaza Strip -- brought into focus by Israel's deadly interception of blockade-busting ships May 31 -- is not the only problem faced by that territory's besieged and impoverished population. As we at Human Rights Watch documented during a trip to Gaza in May, severe violations of personal freedom, and repression of civil society groups that defend that freedom, appear to be sharply on the rise. The Hamas government, trying to shore up its image as an Islamic reform movement in the face of challenges from more radical Islamist groups, is consolidating its social control by upping its efforts to "Islamize" Gaza.

A notorious example is the expanded role of Gaza's "morality police." Last summer, these black-uniformed police began to patrol the beaches to ensure that men and women are dressed "appropriately" -- there is no written rule, but a woman was punished for swimming in a T-shirt and jeans -- and that unrelated men and women are not mingling. They make sure clothing stores display only modestly dressed female mannequins in their windows. They have enforced bans on women riding motorcycles and on male hairdressers working in women's hair salons. Couples walking down the street are routinely stopped, separated and questioned by plainclothes officers asking whether they're married. "You basically have to carry a copy of your marriage license on you at all times, or risk being humiliated," one young couple told us. And parents say their daughters are under pressure to dress more conservatively for school.

But the problem goes beyond such invasions of privacy. In some cases, the security services use "morality offenses" to expand their authority, including punishing people for breaking rules that are not on the books. The cafe owner and several other residents, for instance, told Human Rights Watch that plainclothes detectives had targeted his cafe during the month before his arrest and torture. Waiters told us that business was down sharply after two detectives repeatedly questioned customers, particularly women, grabbed their cellphones and wrote down contact information, in an apparent effort to discourage them from patronizing the cafe. A police spokesman was unable to point to any legal authority for these actions. Detectives whom Human Rights Watch spoke to refused to give us even their names, or any other information.

Although the morality code's enforcers enjoy impunity for their abuses, several inmates of Gaza's central prison appear to be guilty of nothing but bad luck. We met a mother of three children who couldn't produce a marriage certificate, was accused of committing adultery -- with her husband -- and was jailed despite her testimony that her family has prevented her from obtaining the necessary documents because they disapprove of her marriage. A 19-year-old man -- whose father won't hire a lawyer to defend him -- has been in jail without trial for more than a year because he is gay.

Human Rights Watch also documented the case of a young couple whose parents refused to grant their wish to marry. They were so desperate that in an attempt to shame their parents into agreeing to their marriage, the couple "confessed" to having had premarital sex -- a crime under the penal code but rarely enforced before Hamas came to power -- and turned themselves in to police. More than four months later, they were languishing in jail -- the same jail, though prison authorities prevented them from seeing each other. The young woman, veiled and wearing a head-to-toe black chador, shyly asked us to pass on a message to her beloved: "I love you. I will never let them separate us, no matter how long I have to stay in jail. I miss you very much."

It is on the backs of young people like these that the Hamas government, facing discontent from militant religious groups that think it is failing to attack Israel and enforce Islamic law, is seeking to bolster its Islamic credentials.

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