Rights groups slam PA for detaining Palestinian activist

Amnesty International official says arrest of Issa Amro is part of Abbas government’s ‘repressive campaign against free speech’

Palestinian activist Issa Amro arrives for a hearing at the Ofer military court on July 9, 2017, in the town of Betunia, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian activist Issa Amro arrives for a hearing at the Ofer military court on July 9, 2017, in the town of Betunia, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Leading rights groups called Tuesday for the release of a prominent Palestinian activist who was detained after criticizing the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Issa Amro’s detention signals a growing crackdown on free expression in the PA-controlled enclaves in the West Bank, said the London-based group Amnesty International and the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Amro, 35, was detained Monday by PA security forces in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city, after he criticized the detention of a local journalist who had called for Abbas’ resignation. Amro expressed his views in a Facebook post.

Separately, Amro faces Israeli charges in an Israeli military court, including allegedly calling for illegal protests and obstructing the official duties of soldiers. His trial is to resume in October.

Issa Amro, who leads the ‘Youths Against Settlements’ organization, criticizes the Israeli government and Hebron’s Jewish settlers in the old city, on November 5, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Amro is the founder of the group Youth Against Settlements in volatile Hebron, where Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves in the center of the city. Amro has said Israel is trying to silence him.

His lawyer, Farid al-Atrash, said he visited Amro and the detained local journalist in the detention center of the Palestinian Preventive Security forces in Hebron on Monday.

Al-Atrash said Tuesday that the aim of the charges by Israel is to halt what he called Amro’s “relentless struggle against settlement activities in Hebron.”

“It is shameful for the Palestinian Authority to arrest such a strong activist against settlement activities and [Israeli] aggressions in Hebron,” the lawyer said.

Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the PA security forces, said he was not aware of the details of Amro’s detention and declined further comment.

In July, Abbas clamped down on social media and news websites — the main outlets for debate and dissent in the West Bank — with a vaguely worded decree that critics say allows his government to jail anyone on charges of harming “national unity” or the “social fabric.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, July 25, 2017. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Rights activists have said the edict, issued without prior public debate, is perhaps the most significant step yet by Abbas’ government to restrict freedom of expression in the areas it administers.

The detention of Amro sparked new criticism.

“It is outrageous that a prominent human rights defender has been arrested simply for voicing his opinion online,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“Criticizing the authorities should not be a criminal offense,” she said in a statement. “Issa Amro’s arrest is the latest evidence that the Palestinian authorities are determined to continue with their repressive campaign against free speech.”

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