Palestinian journalist faces four criminal charges over Facebook post

Palestinian Authority's arrest of journalist over Facebook post points to 'systemic harassment' of peaceful critics
3 min read
25 June, 2020
Sami al-Sai, who was detained over a video about watermelons, has been subject to years-long 'systemic' harassment and torture by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, says Human Rights Watch.
Sami al-Sai's case is not isolated, say rights groups [Facebook]
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been condemned by human rights groups over the detention of journalist Sami al-Sai, who faces four criminal charges for posting a video to Facebook about watermelons.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the PA's years-long campaign of harassment of Al-Sai, including multiple arrests and allegations of torture and an example of its expanding crackdown on peaceful critics.

Palestinian security forces arrested Al-Sai on 9 June just hours after he posted the video of a watermelon stall in the West Bank city of Tulkarem, despite it containing no political content.

The video had been shared by a Tulkarem community Facebook page, which has criticised PA officials over corruption and other local scandals in the past.

Although Al-Sai has denied any links to the Facebook page, he has been repeatedly questioned over it in his court hearings, HRW said.

The PA has held Al-Sai in pre-trial detention since his arrest, while investigating him on four preliminary charges including "slander" of the PA, "disparagement via the internet", publishing information constituting "unlawful interference in the private or family life of individuals", and "threatening or blackmailing" a person, according to the rights group.

Omar Shakir, HRW's Israel-Palestine director, told The New Arab that the PA "has been systematically, arbitratily detaining critics, opponents, including journalists, for years now".

The PA has arrested Al-Sai twice in the past over Facebook posts.

During a third spell in detention in 2016, he Al-Sai alleged that he was tortured by having his arms tied behind his back, and the rope gradually pulled higher.

Al-Sai was also detained for eight months by Israeli authorities in 2016, also over Facebook posts, which a military court ruled amounted to "incitement".

"This is not an isolated case," Shakir said. "It's part of a routine practice that dates back to the early years after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority." 

Shakir pointed out that Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh vowed upon taking office in 2019 that he would end politically-motivated arrests and persecution.

But recent events show that the practice has continued, or even worsened.

'Expansion' in social media policing

Shakir said that a new trend of has emerged, where even mild or peaceful critics of the PA are being swept up in a campaign of repression.

Between 1 January 2018 and 30 March 2019, the PA detained 752 Palestinians over social media posts, according to official data provided to HRW.

"We've seen in the last several years a type of expansion, moving beyond historically [when] the PA would focus on political dissidents," to include peaceful protestors and those posting on social media.

"Sami al-Sai is but one example, he's somebody who's been detained multiple times by the Palestinian Authority over the years over his peaceful expression, including Facebook posts," Shakir said.

"In the PA, we've seen the security services have a stronger and stronger hand in recent years, and certainly that has corresponded with them committing arbitrary arrests and torture with impunity," Shakir said, adding that there were concerns the situation could deteriorate further.

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