Had Prof. Fathi Soboh given his final exam at any university in America, there probably would not have been many complaints about a test challenging students to question authority.
But under the Palestinian Authority (PA), asking students to write essays about corruption in the self-rule government - and at the university - does not fall under academic immunity.
Soon after Dr. Soboh's exam, he was arrested by Palestinian police and thrown in jail. Soboh has remained in prison for more than three months without charges, and, according to his wife and his lawyer, has been tortured and asked to sign a confession admitting to charges of espionage.
The story says much about how the Palestinian legal system is sometimes used as a tool against President Yasser Arafat's critics. It also threatens to fix another poor mark on the PA's human rights record, further endangering foreign aid that was to nourish Palestinian peacemaking with Israel.
He is not the first prominent Palestinian to be imprisoned for criticizing Mr. Arafat's regime. Last year, a well-known Gazan psychiatrist was put in jail for telling the foreign press that Arafat's rule was
Questions on Arafat's Style of Justice
worse than Israeli occupation. This summer, a Palestinian-American journalist was jailed for broadcasting live legislative council meetings at which members routinely rail against Arafat.
But this has been one of the first such high-profile cases on the watch of Arafat's newly appointed attorney general, Fayez Abu Rahme. A respected Gaza lawyer, Mr. Abu Rahme took the job in July after Arafat's last attorney general, Khaled Qidra, was forced to resign.
Mr. Qidra had ordered arrests of PA critics, defended human rights abuses in the PA, and had his reputation for misusing PA money confirmed by a corruption report released this summer.
Some hoped for better under Abu Rahme, who was once considered a leading human rights advocate. But today he is also indebted to Arafat - the man to whom he owes his new job - and some critics say that makes reforming the PA legal system beyond Abu Rahme's power or political will.
Stepping on toes
Soboh did not land himself in jail just because he encouraged students to critique the authority, but because he asked them to write about corruption at Al-Azhar University, according to interviews with Soboh's wife, Fatma, and his lawyer, Raji Sourani. That angered the university president, Riyad Khoudary, a political figure who enjoys close relationships with Arafat and his Gaza security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.
Soboh was angry that Dr. Khoudary was granting admission to members of Mr. Dahlan's security forces, even though many were underqualified, to help boost their careers, say his wife and lawyer. Some were being granted degrees without having attended class, and dragging university standards down, Soboh believed.
"Riyad Khoudary was already mad at Soboh because Soboh had been criticizing the administration," says Mr. Sourani, the lawyer. "To me, it's a personal [conflict]. Khoudary complained to Dahlan, and Dahlan said, 'I will smash his head for you.' "
Khoudary says he never complained to the PA, but merely formed a university committee to question Soboh. The arrest came a day later.
"It is completely wrong that there is anything personal between myself and Dr. Soboh. We have nothing to do with him being put in jail," says Khoudary, interviewed in his campus office, where a poster-sized picture of Arafat covers one wall and a picture of the two of them hangs above his desk.
"But when he is released, we will ask him why he has used his university time to ask such things, which are not related to his field, education," Khoudary continues, saying Soboh might ultimately be fired.
A new report by New York-based Human Rights Watch sheds doubt on the judiciary's ability to ensure the rule of law is respected.
Among other criticisms, the report calls the state security courts to which Soboh's case has been referred "the most disturbing feature of the Palestinian judicial system" because trials are held in secret, often last just a few minutes, and usually deny the defendant legal representation.
'No exact charges'
In question is whether the new attorney general can reverse that trend. In an interview with the Monitor, Abu Rahme seemed equivocal. First, he outlined reasons for Soboh's arrest. Then, he suggested that his continued detention was wrong but beyond his control.
Pressed for what crimes Soboh should be charged with, he says: "There are no exact charges.... He deserves to be released."
If that is the case, why doesn't Abu Rahme order his release? After a pause, he shrugs and gives a slow, sheepish smile. "The chairman [Arafat] ordered that he ought to stay in prison. I have no say in this."
Abu Rahme says he would like to make some reforms. But he says that he cannot be the one to revamp the system - that must come from the Palestinian legislature.
"The attorney general is supposed to have a certain harmony with the leaders," Abu Rahme says.
The Palestinian legislature did try to create a legal system, but Arafat has refused to sign the bills the council passed - most of which observers say would weaken his power. They aimed to create one unified Palestinian law to replace the different laws that apply to the West Bank and to the Gaza Strip, based on Jordanian and Egyptian law, respectively.
In addition to that lack of uniformity, the PA has held onto the same British mandate that Israel has: the Emergency Laws of 1945, which still allow suspects to be held in administrative detention without charges. Says Abu Rahme: "It is a precious article for the authorities."
Other human rights lawyers say they are pleased with Abu Rahme's appointment, but see no improvements so far.
"Abu Rahme does enjoy a good reputation, but I do not know of any specific changes he has introduced into law or practice," says Jonathan Kuttab, a Jerusalem attorney whose brother, Daoud, is the broadcaster who was arrested this summer. "Abu Rahme is close to Arafat, but he is the kind of person to be embarrassed rather than gloat about orders to arrest dozens of people."
Mr. Kuttab says that US and Israeli demands that Arafat keep a lid on Islamic militants send him mixed signals and further frustrate efforts to force him to run a fair justice system.
"The paradox is, they tell him: 'We want you to violate the rights of Hamas, but if it's just opponents of your regime, you have to respect them,' " says Kuttab.
But Soboh is not a Hamas supporter, so talk of pressures to round up Muslim radicals is little consolation to his wife and five children. When their six-year-old son started school this year, the boy told his teacher she shouldn't give her students any tests because she might be arrested.
"My kids keep saying, 'Mom, you're a liar, because you said Dad would be back by now,' " says Fatma Soboh.
"If Fathi's guilty, they should bring him to court and then shoot him in the middle of Palestine Square," the center of downtown Gaza. "He's innocent, and they know that he's innocent."