One Palestinian Dissident Free, But Rights Abuses Still Pervade
GAZA CITY, GAZA — For 17 days, Eyad Sarraj sat in a jail cell in Gaza hardly bigger than the man himself. He was alone, but not forgotten.
He had been sharply critical of the rule of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority over the West Bank and Gaza - the newly Arab controlled areas of Israel. During Dr. Sarraj's captivity, calls for his release from human rights groups and diplomats grew into a chorus of concern.
Sarraj was released Wednesday. Appearing subdued and a bit reticent, he claimed he had been beaten, and said in the future he would use language to criticize the government of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that is "not too confrontational."
But Sarraj's case illustrates the absence of human rights - including due process and freedom of expression - as well as the growing international concern about Mr. Arafat's new rule of a budding Palestinian entity.
"The concern does go beyond Dr. Sarraj," an American embassy official said. "It's an ongoing concern. I would assume that other cases will be monitored."
Few expected Arafat's transition from a terror-supporting nationalist to peacemaker and local governor to be smooth. And Arafat has been under intense pressure by Israelis to maintain order in the self-rule territories and not allow terrorists to proliferate. But for many, Arafat's rule has been downright harsh.
Amnesty International's report for 1995, released last week, describes the Authority's use of torture, detention without trial, and extrajudicial murder throughout the year. The Authority's security forces detained more than 1,000 Palestinians on political grounds, the report said.
But there are signs that judges within the Palestinian Authority will increasingly try to use their courts to overrule extrajudicial political arrests and detentions.
On the same day as Sarraj's release, the PA's court of appeals in Ramallah ordered Arafat to explain the jailing of 10 students being held without charges.
Raji Sourani, Sarraj's lawyer, wants his client's release to set a precedent for others who are regularly jailed without being charged. "I hope that what has happened with Dr. Sarraj applied to hundreds of Islamic Jihad and Hamas activists who are still in jail," he said. "I hope all parties realize that peace can never be at the expense of human rights."
Although outside pressure is growing on Arafat to protect human rights, Palestinian sources say there is opposite pressure on the president from within.
"Arafat is possibly mollifying the hard-liners in his government who want to crack down - and don't want to just have an open policy for people to say whatever they want, especially to the foreign press," says one diplomatic source.
Indeed it was Sarraj being quoted in The New York Times in May by columnist Anthony Lewis that began his latest round of troubles.
In Mr. Lewis's article, Sarraj said the PA was "corrupt, dictatorial, and oppressive."
Over the years, Sarraj gained status for his analyses of the psychological damage done to Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
He was arrested May 18 and released May 26. Then the human rights commission he heads - which was founded by prominent Palestinian Councilwoman Hanan Ashrawi - said it would sue Attorney General al-Kidra for arbitrary arrests of Palestinians in general and Sarraj in particular.
On June 9, Sarraj was arrested again. Then, on Wednesday, all charges against him - which included possessing a small amount of drugs and assaulting a police officer - were dropped.
But Sarraj's case - and Arafat's rule in general - is getting increasing attention from international donor nations.
US diplomats spoke to Arafat several times regarding Sarraj's jailing, as did members of the European Community.
"This could have a spillover effect on the donor community," said the embassy official.
In fact, partially because of Arafat's tactics, only two-thirds of the funds pledged to the PA by international donors has ever materialized.
Ms. Ashrawi, who left Sarraj's human rights commission to return to the Palestinian political stage, says Sarraj's case is representative. "This shows the excesses of the security system and of the attorney general," she says.
"We think it is inadmissible that people should be in prison for their opinions and that they should be tortured in prison."