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Is the West Bank cracking down on free speech?

MP Najat Abu Bakr, who ended her two-week sit-in at parliament headquarters in Ramallah, spoke to Al-Monitor about corruption and freedoms in the West Bank.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — On March 10, Najat Abu Bakr, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in Ramallah, ended her two-week sit-in after she reached an agreement with member of parliament Azzam al-Ahmad, head of Fatah's parliamentary bloc in the PLC, under which Abu Bakr appeared before the public prosecutor.

Abu Bakr began a sit-in in the PLC following security forces’ attempts to arrest her Feb. 25 by virtue of an arrest warrant by the public prosecutor and after the public prosecution summoned her to appear before it on the count of charges subject to the Penal Code in the cases registered before the public prosecution office under numbers 722/2016 and 719/2016.

Abu Bakr said in press statements Feb. 24 that the court order is illegal given that she enjoys parliamentary privilege. She continued the sit-in at the PLC building until the arrest warrant was abolished. The arrest warrant came after Abu Bakr demanded Feb. 15 that decision-makers at the Palestinian Authority (PA) inquire about a minister, whom she did not name, who obtained 800,000 shekels ($205,655) for the implementation of a private project.

In response to her accusations, Minister of Local Governance Hussein al-Araj told the media Feb. 17 that “the accusations leveled by MP Abu Bakr against me are false and the said sum is also wrong.”

Abu Bakr is a Fatah MP who served as director general at the Economy Ministry. She holds a Ph.D. in political sociology and is an activist in several local and international organizations, particularly those concerned with women’s political and economic empowerment.

Al-Monitor:  Why was the sit-in staged in parliament headquarters?

Abu Bakr:  The arrest warrant that was issued by the attorney general and the security forces’ attempt to arrest me Feb. 25 were [the reasons for] my sit-in in the PLC. Throughout this period, the arrest warrant was in the hands of security forces surrounding the PLC. I staged the sit-in inside the PLC building because I am convinced that it is the Palestinian people's house, and I will protect it and protect the basic law that does not allow that an MP who criticized any minister or official be arrested. This is because the MP’s key task is to oversee the government. Unfortunately, things are reversed and the law is not being invoked. The decision-making process is monopolized, the executive branch is predominant over the law and legislative branch, and the policy to muzzle voices prevails.

Al-Monitor:  How long were you willing to continue with the sit-in in the PLC?

Abu Bakr:  I was going to stay there until my case was resolved, the arrest warrant was abolished and the world learned about my case. Every MP may be subject to what I have experienced, since they were willing to arrest me on the charge of raising issues prejudicing national and financial aspects and disclosing corruption in the Palestinian territories.

Al-Monitor:  Media outlets reported that you handed over corruption documents and files to the head of Fatah’s parliamentary bloc Azzam al-Ahmad so that he would hand them over to President Mahmoud Abbas. Is it true? Why did you hand them over?

Abu Bakr:  I do not want to talk about this issue right now or on whether or not I secured corruption documents and files. What is important is that my sit-in in the PLC is over and that I was not arrested. I am at home now in the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank, and I still have parliamentary privilege. At the end of the day, the corruption files in my possession are the property of the Palestinian people and should be placed in the hands of officials for inquiry.

Al-Monitor:  Can you tell us about the corruption cases about which you secured documents?

Abu Bakr:  For the time being, the corruption case I revealed to the press is enough. It is namely my demand that a minister be questioned about receiving a sum of money exceeding 800,000 shekels from government resources for the implementation of a private project.

Al-Monitor:  Which minister did you mean when speaking of the 800,000 shekels of the government resources?

Abu Bakr:  I did not and I am not going to name this minister. Yet he is the one who unmasked himself in the media. I dare anyone to get me a media statement where I named Minister of Local Governance Hussein al-Araj in this case.

Al-Monitor:  Have any of the officials at the Palestinian presidency or government communicated with you since you staged the sit-in?

Abu Bakr:  No one communicated with me. No one dared to talk to the Palestinian president about the case.

Al-Monitor:  How do you perceive the situation of political freedoms, particularly the freedom of opinion and expression, in the West Bank?

Abu Bakr:  I do not see that there are freedoms in the West Bank, but rather there is a policy to muzzle the voices and militarize Palestinian society. I am warning the Palestinian leadership that the community was militarized a long time ago, and this militarization will not bring positive results. This is because communities that are militarized constantly have a tendency toward violence, defeat and destruction, rather than a tendency toward building.

Al-Monitor:  How do you evaluate the PLC factions and the MP’s solidarity with your case? What about the solidarity expressed by some Jordanian MPs who demanded that the PA refrain from prosecuting you?

Abu Bakr:  In general, the solidarity level was not what the situation required. There was confusion, and supreme authorities resorted to intimidation and dissemination of rumors. Yet I do appreciate all of the efforts designed to back my case.

Al-Monitor:  Which message did you want to deliver through your sit-in in the PLC?

Abu Bakr:  My message was to call on human rights organizations and world parliaments to coerce the PA to implement agreements and basic laws that prevent any violation of the MP privilege, except in accordance with certain conditions.

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