RAMALLAH, West Bank — The charge of “inciting sectarian strife” has become a sword hanging over the heads of political activists and other citizens who are being arrested for criticizing the government or the security services on social networking websites. As a result, the dominance and influence of the executive power has been reinforced, especially in the long absence of the Palestinian Legislative Council's (PLC) control and the weakness of the judiciary.
Abdullah Nash’at al-Sayed, from the city of Tulkarm north of the West Bank, works as a photographer for weddings and events. Sayed was detained by the Preventive Security Services twice in September, accused by both the Preventive Security Services and the public prosecutor of “inciting sectarian strife” as well as “insulting supreme shrines and defaming, slandering and offending relations with Saudi Arabia.”
Sayed denied the charges, and said he was arrested Sept. 12 and held for 24 hours after he criticized Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Sayed’s wife, journalist Sundus Ali, explained that there has been a personal dispute between her husband's family and Hamdallah for years. She told Al-Monitor her husband was interrogated and asked, “Why do you write about Rami Hamdallah? Why do you say that it is a state of [politicians], and not a state of law?” knowing that Sayed had taken the dispute to the media.
Sayed was arrested again, on Sept. 15 at his office, according to Sundus, for "criticizing and insulting Saudi Arabia." Sayed again denied the charges and said that this time he was interrogated about criticizing the Tulkarm municipality due to continued power outages in the city. Sayed began a hunger strike Sept. 15 until he appeared Sept. 17 before the public prosecutor, who decided to extend his detention for 15 days on charges of “inciting sectarian strife according to Article 150 of the Penal Code.” He was released Sept. 20 on $2,850 bail.
The executive branch is taking advantage of Article 150 of the Penal Code, which was promulgated in 1960 and is described by jurists as obsolete. They say the article — which criminalizes any action resulting in sectarian or racial strife — is hazy, lacks controls and does not abide by the rules contained in the Palestinian Basic Law on freedom of opinion and expression.
Lawyer Gandhi Amin, who has represented dozens of people accused of this charge, told Al-Monitor, “The article is vague and lacks specificity,” and in addition “relates to the Jordanian king, as the Penal Code is Jordanian and dates back to 1960."
He added, “Jordanians who criticize the king are charged based on Article 150 in Jordanian law. However, this article cannot be applied [in the West Bank] to those who criticize President [Mahmoud] Abbas, as the president cannot be put on an equal footing with the king when applying the Penal Code and the Criminal Law.”
Ahmed Khalidi, a constitutional law professor and head of the Palestinian Constitution Drafting Committee, said, "It [Article 150] should not be over-interpreted by the executive authorities in a way that violates the general rule set out in the Basic Law, because such over-interpretation is tantamount to a crime.”
He said, “The executive authority exploits this article in a bid to impose its control. The judiciary is supposed to protect rights and freedoms without allowing the executive branch to use this article to defend its interests and the interests of some influential people.”
Nothing in the Basic Law prohibits citizens from criticizing public national issues, "and they should not be held accountable for that," Khalidi said. "When citizens do not resort to legal means to defend themselves, the executive branch is encouraged to further impose its dominance to maintain its interests."
Amin said Article 150 is applied to communities that are recognized in Palestine, namely the Christian community recognized under the Jordanian law on sects — which is applicable in Palestine — and the Samaritan community recognized as a Palestinian community under the Palestinian electoral law,” and there is no conflict between these two communities.
Khalidi said, "Most of the Palestinian people are Muslims, and there are no problems with our fellow Christians. So there is no reason to use this article, as it will entrench sectarianism, which is [originally] nonexistent in our society.”
Ammar Dweik, director general of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor the Palestinian Authority is using the charge of inciting sectarian strife against detainees, most of whom are really being held on political grounds.
Dweik said that, in addition to appearing in the 1960 Penal Code, the charge can be found in the Press and Publications Law of 1995. Both outdated bills must be amended or canceled, he said, since Palestine is a member of international human rights institutions and is committed to international conventions. The vague texts could be interpreted to allow for the arrest of any citizen, he added.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights monitors and publishes reports on human rights violations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on a monthly basis.
“There are violations against freedom of expression and opinion, and a number of citizens have been arrested against the backdrop of writing on social networking websites. This is due to the general political situation, which does not provide a fertile ground for the protection of human rights,” Dweik said.
As the PLC no longer fulfills its oversight duty and the weak judiciary fails to play its role, the executive power — fueled by internal Palestinian division — continues to impose its dominance on citizens. At the same time, the executive power is taking advantage of old and vague legislation that was designed to protect the political system at the time and to prosecute opponents.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly