Palestinian Authority Indicts 14 Security Force Members in Activist’s Death

HEBRON, West Bank — Fourteen members of the Palestinian Authority’s security services were charged with beating to death an outspoken activist known for his fierce online criticism, in a case that turned into a rallying cry against what critics describe as the growing authoritarianism of the Palestinian Authority.

Gen. Talal Dweikat, the spokesman of the security forces, on Sunday announced the indictments against members of Preventive Security, a force known for arresting opponents of the authority, including Hamas militants. The indictments came after international pressure, including from European Union, on senior Palestinian leaders.

But family members of the victim, Nizar Banat, 42, expressed outrage that military prosecutors failed to indict more senior officials, who they contend bear responsibility for Mr. Banat’s death, and said they were seeking accountability through the international community.

The authority has attempted to portray Mr. Banat’s death in late June as an isolated incident carried out by a group of undisciplined security forces.

But critics have argued that his death has highlighted a more systemic problem in the authority, which has assiduously protected its senior officials and has grown increasingly unwilling to tolerate dissent, especially that which targets members of the ruling party in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Fatah.

Convictions on the charge of beating to death could carry sentences of at least seven years, said Ghandi al-Rabi, a lawyer representing Mr. Banat’s family. Some of the indicted, however, could face more severe consequences because prosecutors have attached aggravating circumstances, Mr. al-Rabi said. Other charges include “illegal confiscation” of property and “violating military orders,” according to a Palestinian security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to communicate with the media.

Ghassan Banat, a brother of Nizar Banat, said the authority should have not only charged the forces who took part in Mr. Banat’s arrest.

“They are turning this group of 14 into sacrificial lambs,” he said in an interview. “The authority is shielding the people who gave the orders. Does it make any sense that these 14 soldiers would have come without instructions from above? There are those who ordered, those who planned and those who executed. They all bear responsibility.”

In a phone interview, General Dweikat said the people charged in Mr. Banat’s death were the only ones responsible.

More details emerged about Mr. Banat’s death in an interview with his cousin Hussein Banat, 21, who was at the house Mr. Banat was staying in when it happened.

Nizar Banat, who had moved to a property owned by family members in an Israeli-controlled part of Hebron after his own home was shot at in May, was asleep on June 24 at 3:10 a.m., when security forces for the Palestinian Authority broke through a window in pursuit of him, Hussein Banat said.

He said plainclothes security force members surrounded his cousin, beating him with batons and metal rods while dousing his face with pepper spray.

“It was a horrific sight,” said Hussein Banat, who said he has since struggled to sleep at night and fears going to public spaces. “They savagely beat him without any mercy.”

After the security forces handcuffed Nizar Banat and forced him to kneel, the cousin said, a handful of officers wearing vests with the Preventive Security’s logo entered the room and ordered their colleagues to continue beating him. “Keep going,” he quoted one of them as saying sternly before the team carried away Nizar Banat.

Hours later, Jibrin al-Bakri, the governor of Hebron, announced Mr. Banat died after his health “deteriorated” during his arrest.

Gen. Majed Faraj, the Palestinian intelligence chief, told European and other diplomats in July that there was no order to kill Mr. Banat, describing his death as a highly unfortunate “mistake” and emphasizing that U.S., British and other security forces also make occasional fatal errors, according to European officials who were present.

Two doctors who participated in an autopsy of Mr. Banat described his death as “unnatural,” with bruises and abrasions on many areas of his body, including the head and neck, said Ammar Al-Dwaik, the director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, a government-established body, in late June. Justice Minister Mohammad al-Shalaldeh later confirmed to government-run media that Mr. Banat had suffered an “unnatural” death.

Nizar Banat was a house painter with a following online for his acerbic and caustic commentary, including criticism of the authority’s relations with Israel. From his home in Dura, a village south of Hebron in the West Bank, he would post videotaped comments that few would dare to make but that often resonated with the broader public.

In late April, he blasted President Mahmoud Abbas for declaring he would allow parliamentary and presidential elections to take place only if Israel allowed voting in East Jerusalem.

“You want to punish Israel by depriving the Palestinian people of elections,” said Mr. Banat, who had announced his candidacy for Parliament. “What kind of stupidity is this?”

In addition to criticizing the authority, Mr. Banat took aim at Israel; at Mohammed Dahlan, an exiled rival of Mr. Abbas; and at the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

The trial of the security forces is slated to begin in coming days.

Without hope for achieving justice in the Palestinian court system, the Banat family said they have turned to international authorities for help.

Protesters took to the streets after Mr. Banat’s death, with security forces taking sometimes violent measures to stop them. Recently, protests over Mr. Banat’s death have lost momentum, but an attempt to renew them in Ramallah in late August was stymied by security forces who arrested more than two dozen people.

Protesters have not only spoken out against Mr. Banat’s death but expressed frustration about the eroding independence of the legal system, rampant nepotism, mismanagement of public funds and arrests targeting people for Facebook posts, among other issues.

Ghassan Banat said his brother’s death illustrated to him that he, his wife and five children have no future in the West Bank.

“It’s impossible to endure living here,” he said. “I’ve had enough of the repression from the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” he said. “Once we finish all our work for Nizar, we will leave.”

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Written by Bourbiza Mohamed

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