A Ramallah court has ordered the early release on bail of 12 activists who say they were arrested for protesting corruption in the Palestinian Authority, after their detention was initially extended by 15 days.
According to Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, 22 protesters were preparing to hold a rally in Ramallah’s central al-Manara square on July 19 to protest economic conditions, corruption and poor government performance during the coronavirus pandemic, when they were arrested. Ten were subsequently released.
The court order late Tuesday to release the remaining 12 defendants ahead of schedule comes after widespread criticism of what civil society organizations and rights groups called a crackdown on anti-corruption activists in the guise of preserving public health.
Demonstrators were charged with violating emergency coronavirus restrictions by organizing a gathering when the PA had asked residents not to gather in public and to stay home unless absolutely necessary.
The 12 detainees had their detention extended for 15 days. While in detention, some of them began a hunger strike. One detainee, Fayez al-Suweiti, had already been arrested earlier in July after posting claims about PA corruption on social media.
“These arrests are exploiting the emergency restrictions to arrest activists,” the protesters’ lawyer Mohannad Karaja told al-Hayat radio.
بعد تنفيذ قرار محكمة الصلح القاضي بالإفراج عن كافة النشطاء المعتقلين على خلفية #مظاهرة_طفح_الكيل,، من أمام مركز توقيف شرطة رام الله والبيرة.
Other protests by restaurant owners and merchants against coronavirus restrictions in Hebron and Ramallah, however, ended with negotiations rather than arrests. Business representatives were brought into a political process where they worked out a compromise with local authorities. The anti-corruption protesters were not so lucky; their trials are reportedly set to commence in August.
Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, condemned the arrests.
“[The arrests are] a vindictive punitive measure that is inconsistent with public rights and freedoms,” said AMAN, a civil society organization that advocates for greater transparency and accountability in Palestinian governance.
According to a recent poll, 81% of Palestinians believe that the there is corruption in the PA. One-quarter view it as the most serious issue confronting Palestinian society today.
The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant economic consequences have made the issue of corruption more salient. While the PA announced a stimulus fund known as “Dignified Stand” to aid Palestinians whose livelihoods have been damaged by the pandemic, many Palestinians believe that the fund was misused and only reached those with connections with the PA establishment.
Several promotions in the PA Health Ministry during the coronavirus crisis were also widely viewed as handouts to family members of senior officials, even as the PA itself suffers from ballooning deficits. Many public sector employees have seen their wages slashed significantly due to the PA’s fiscal crisis.
“We demand the establishment of a Ministry of Government Officials’ Kids, or the Ministry of Our Masters’ Kids, whatever you want to call it, which will be responsible for giving their children whatever posts and salaries they see fit,” comedian Alaa Abu Diab remarked in a widely-circulated Facebook post.
In response to the criticism, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced in late June the creation of a special council to monitor appointments and promotions in the Palestinian civil service.
The Palestinian Authority Justice Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.