Abbas critic dies in PA custody

By Erin Viner for TV7

Furor has erupted in the Palestinian Authority (PA), after the death of a known activist detained by President Mahmoud Abbas‘ security forces.

Nizar al-Banat, 43, died “an unnatural death” according to the preliminary findings of an autopsy concluded by Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR).

Banat had been a social activist with 100,000 Facebook followers who had openly accused Abbas’ PA of corruption.

This past Monday, he condemned PA officials as mercenaries for canceling its coronavirus vaccine exchange deal with Israel earlier this month.

He was also publicly critical of Abbas’ decision to call off its first parliamentary elections in 15 years that had been slated for 22 May – in which he had been registered to run. Opponents of the Palestinian President said he cancelled the vote to avoid losing to his rivals, the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza; which he denies.

Banat’s family told Reuters that PA security forces broke into their house in the West Bank city of Hebron overnight on Thursday, began to beat Banat after pulling him out of bed.

“They hit him on his head with iron bars, which they had used to open the windows,” Banat’s cousin, Hussein, 21, said. “They beat him continuously for 9 minutes. If you came to arrest him, take him. Why the brutality?”

The ICHR report was consistent with the family accounts, revealing that, “The autopsy showed injuries represented by bruises and abrasions in many areas of the body, including the head, neck, shoulders, chest, back, and upper and lower extremities, with binding marks on the wrists and rib fractures,”

The human rights organization led its own investigation into Banat’s death with consent of his next of kin – marking significant demonstration of public distrust in an inquiry that had been ordered Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, an Abbas appointee.

Hundreds of angry Palestinians immediately marched on the presidential compound in Ramallah to demand Abbas resign over the death. Some protestors in central Ramallah clashed with security forces, who responded with the firing of tear gas and stun grenades.

Critics of the 85-year-old Palestinian leader – who was elected to a 4-year term in 2005 –charge that he has long ruled the PA by decree. According to Hebron Governor Jibreen al-Bakri, Banat’s arrest had been ordered by the PA Attorney General.

“The crushing death of activist Nizar al-Banat shortly after his arrest by the PA is no anomaly. PA security forces have for years systematically arbitrarily arrested, mistreated & tortured critics and dissidents,” said Omar Shakir of the Human Rights Watch group.

The international community has called for a transparent investigation into Banat’s death.

“We are deeply disturbed by the death of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat and the information that has been reported regarding the circumstances of his death,” said United States Department of State Spokesman Ned Price in a statement obtained by TV7.

“We have serious concerns about Palestinian Authority restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression by Palestinians and harassment of civil society activists and organizations,” said the statement, while offering Washington’s “sincere condolences to his family and community” and call for the PA “to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation and to ensure full accountability in this case.”

The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, expressed alarm and said he was saddened by the death while also urging a a transparent investigation, in a message posted on Twitter.

Also responding on Twitter, the European Union delegation to the Palestinians said was shocked and saddened, adding a “full, independent and transparent investigation should be conducted immediately.”

The PA exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, where 3.1 million Palestinians reside. It rejects accusations of corruption, torture or the arrests of people for their political views.

Reuters contributed to this report.