Taxed by torture" by Graham Usher, Al-Ahram Weekly 20-26 August 1998
EXCERPTS: ... Walid Mahmoud Al-Qawasmi became the 20th Palestinian to die in PA custody. A manager of a Bethlehem insurance firm and father of eight, Al-Qawasmi had been arrested in Hebron on 25 July by officers from the PA's General Intelligence Service (GIS), one of the PA's 11 intelligence forces that operate in the Occupied Territories.
Two weeks later, his family visited him at a GIS detention centre in Jericho. Clearly in declining health, Al-Qawasmi's only comment was that he was "innocent." It is unclear of what, since the GIS had filed no charges against him.
On 9 August Al-Qawasmi died en route from Jericho to Rafidia Hospital in Nablus.. ... A witness at the autopsy told the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) that Al-Qawasmi's death was the result of a brain haemorrhage caused by a fractured skull. The fracture, said the witness, was the result of "severe beating to the head."
Why was Al-Qawasmi arrested? A report on Israel's Army Radio quoted Palestinian security sources as saying that Al-Qawasmi was suspected of selling land to Israelis. But Al-Qawasmi's Palestinian acquaintances reject the explanation. Al-Qawasmi was involved in insurance, not real estate, they say, and had a clean reputation in the community. The allegation is further weakened by the PA's unusual response to the death.
Five Palestinians suspected of land-dealing (a crime viewed as collaboration by the PA and the vast majority of Palestinians) have been killed since the PA was installed in 1994. The corpses are usually dumped outside the Palestinian areas and usually accompanied by official denials from the PA that it had anything to do with the deaths (a disavowal that has convinced neither the Israeli government nor Palestinian human rights groups). In Al-Qawasmi's case, however, the PA could not deny involvement. Nor, for the most part, did it try to.
On 10 August, Arafat ordered an official investigation into the circumstances of Al-Qawasmi's death, pledging that the findings would be "revealed soon."
Neither the condolences nor the promise of an official inquiry cut much ice with Palestinian human rights groups. "There have been 20 such promises, every time, in fact, a Palestinian dies in PA custody," says Bassem Eid, the PHRMG's director. "Nothing will come from the investigation."
Eid believes the reason for Al-Qawasmi's arrest may have been financial and that the PA's decision to open an investigation was less to uncover the facts than to prevent the public and PLC from probing too deeply into the real cause of his detention by the GIS.
Eid bases his hunch on 40 testimonies collected by his organisation over the last two years from Palestinian contractors and sub-contractors, mostly from the Hebron area. Thirty-six of the testimonies accuse the GIS and the PA's Preventive Security Force (PSF) of illegal arrest, torture and prolonged detention, sometimes as long as 14 months. The charge levelled against the contractors is tax fraud, with the GIS and PSF alleging that the contractors are producing fake invoices to evade paying taxes to the PA. Under interrogation, and often under torture, some of the detainees have confessed to the crime. But the issue at hand is "not whether the individual contractors are innocent or guilty," says Eid. "It is the illegal procedures used against them."
Aside from the use of torture and absence of any due process, the most disturbing aspect of the detainees' testimonies is the obscurity over where the money extorted from them eventually ends up. Most claim they paid cash, without getting a receipt, directly to the intelligence forces to secure their release. But the PA's Ministry of Finance says it has received payment from only one of the victims. "On the basis of our testimonies, we are talking about one million shekels that is currently unaccounted for," says Eid. "Where is the money?"
Many Palestinians have a fair idea, though few would openly say so. According to the Oslo Accords, the PA is supposed to employ around 21,000 people in its security forces, paid and accounted for out of the PA's budget. But the actual number of Palestinians currently working for the security and intelligence bodies is between 35,000 and 40,000. How these excess officers are salaried, equipped and armed has long been a source of speculation by PLC members and by Palestinians at large.
And, on the basis of the PHRMG's report, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that
the PA security forces, under the pretext of clamping down on tax fraud, are extorting
money from Palestinian civilians to fund the militaristic regime that increasingly rules
over them rather than on their behalf.
Dr. Joseph Lerner, Co-Director IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis)(mail POB 982 Kfar Sava) Tel 972-9-7604719/Fax 972-9-7411645 INTERNET ADDRESS: firstname.lastname@example.org pager 03-6750750 subscriber 4811 ARCHIVE: http://join.virtual.co.il/cgi-win/imra.exe
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