(New York) – The Gaza government has apparently not even begun a promised investigation more than four months after gunmen killed seven Palestinian prisoners accused of collaboration with Israel. Meanwhile, the Hamas government has set a deadline of April 11, 2013, for suspected collaborators to turn themselves in, promising them an amnesty.
The men, who were last seen alive in custody during the November 2012 fighting with Israel, were executed on a public street. One of the men’s bodies was dragged behind a motorcycle. Military courts had convicted the men primarily on the basis of coerced confessions, ignoring credible evidence that interrogators tortured at least six of them.
“Hamas’s inability or unwillingness to investigate the brazen murders of seven men makes a mockery of its claims that it’s upholding the rule of law in Gaza,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Even before the killings, the abuses the men suffered made the criminal justice system a travesty, regardless of their guilt or innocence.”
In a separate case, on March 24, 2013, a military court in Gaza sentenced a man arrested in August 2011 and convicted of collaborating with Israel to death by hanging. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of severe due-process violations, abuse of detainees, and unfair trials in Gaza; Palestinian rights groups recorded more than 100 allegations of torture in 2012 alone. The government should at least impose an immediate moratorium on executions, and preferably end the death penalty altogether, Human Rights Watch said.
In an April 6 statement on the website of the Gaza Interior Ministry, Muhammad Lafi, the deputy director of the Internal Security agency, stated that the security services had recently arrested an unspecified number of collaborators – allegedly working for “Western intelligence agencies” – and that “half of them have confessed.”
Hamas set the April 11 deadline for surrender for a promised amnesty under the terms of what Hamas calls the “National Campaign against Collaborating with the Enemy.” Lafi told Al-Monitor, a regional news website, that the agency has a list of collaborators who will be arrested if they do not turn themselves in.
The families of the seven men killed in November last saw them alive in detention facilities in Gaza, in some cases days before they were murdered, raising concerns that prison officials failed to protect them from the killers or, worse, handed them over.
Gunmen killed one of the victims on November 16, while the other six were killed on November 20, during the eight-day Israeli military offensive in Gaza.
The Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, claimed responsibility for the latter six killings, and notes were pinned to the bodies reading: “Al-Qassam Brigades announces the execution of the traitors,” international news organizations reported. The gunmen tied some of the six corpses to motorcycles and dragged them through the streets. The faces of some of the motorcyclists are visible in photographs that have been published on news websites.
Some Hamas officials offered weak justifications for the killings at the time. Ma’an, a Palestinian news agency, quoted Mahmud Zahar, a Hamas leader, as telling journalists on November 24: “We will not allow one collaborator to be in Gaza, and let human rights groups say whatever they want. A human has rights if they have honor and not if they are a traitor.”
Hamas security officials also falsely claimed that one of the men had confessed to aiding Israel while the six others “were caught red-handed” and “possessed hi-tech equipment and filming equipment to take footage of positions” during Israel’s November military offensive in Gaza, Palestinian media reported. All seven men had been in detention for months or years before the November 2012 hostilities, however.
Other Hamas leaders, including deputy politburo chief Musa Abu Marzouq, condemned the killings and called for those responsible to be held accountable. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Gaza government, stated on November 25 that Hamas had established an independent committee to investigate the killings, although he gave no details of its composition. On December 2, at a meeting with the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), the Palestinian national institution for human rights, Haniyeh criticized the killings, pledged to implement the committee’s recommendations, and said that the government would consider compensating the victims’ families if the committee called on it to do so.
The government has not announced any information about the committee’s membership, work, or findings. Haniyeh did not respond to a letter from the ICHR in March requesting information about the committee. Of the five families of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch in December, four said in April that they had not been contacted by the committee. The wife of one of the men said that a Hamas official told her son that the killers had been caught and were being interrogated, but that she knew of no information to support that claim. The fifth family could not be reached for comment.
Family members of five of the six men killed on November 20, interviewed separately, said that when they went to collect their bodies at al-Shifa hospital that day, they found that the five bodies had been dumped together on the floor of the morgue, that hospital officials prevented them from recovering them for 24 hours, and that the bodies were in the same place the following day. The family of the sixth man declined to be interviewed.
The military prosecutor had charged the man who was killed on November 16 with collaborating with the enemy, and his trial was in progress at the time of his murder. Military courts had previously convicted the six men killed on November 20 of collaborating with the enemy, but in each case, appeals courts were still hearing their cases.
In at least four of the seven cases, the judicial authorities in Gaza appear to have ignored claims that the men had been denied access to family members and lawyers for long periods, that they had been tortured in detention, and that their convictions for collaboration were based on confessions obtained under duress, according to the men’s families, lawyers, and court documents that Human Rights Watch reviewed.
Military courts have issued 13 death sentences against alleged collaborators, and the Interior Ministry has executed six of them since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, according to the Independent Commission for Human Rights. During and after hostilities with Israel in 2008 and 2009, gunmen and members of the security services in Gaza extrajudicially executed at least 32 people, including alleged collaborators. Hamas authorities told Human Rights Watch at the time that they had investigated four of the cases, which involved deaths in detention, and had filed charges against two police officers involved.
“Months after seven Palestinians were murdered in broad daylight, seemingly with the collusion of security officials, the Hamas authorities in Gaza appear not to have lifted a finger to investigate, let alone to hold those responsible to account,” Whitson said. “Hamas should be taking concrete steps to reform the criminal justice system and break the cycle of impunity that, as these men’s cases show, lets torturers and killers roam free.”
The Prisoners Killed in November
On November 16, a group of armed men brought Ashraf Abdel Hamid Aweidah, 41, to the Naser neighborhood in Gaza City, where they shot and killed him. On November 20, gunmen brought Amer al-Af, Zoheir Hamudi, Ribhi Badawi, Bilal al-Abatsa, Ghassan Asfour, and Fadel Abu Shaluf to an intersection between the Sheikh Radwan and al-Naser neighborhoods in northern Gaza City, and shot and killed them, witnesses said.
Aweidah, 41, a father of seven, owned a car-parts store on Qiyada Street in the Zeytoun neighborhood of Gaza City. Four men in civilian clothes arrested him at his home on December 26, 2011, his wife, Hitam, 39, told Human Rights Watch.
They said, “We just need to talk to him for five minutes,” and they took him away. Fifteen days later, police in uniforms showed up and confiscated his Jeep and our car. They made him call us to tell us to give up the vehicles. That was the first time we’d heard from him. We found out that he was held by Internal Security at the “Governor’s Castle”