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Arafat Creates Military Courts To Harden Crackdown on Militants

Palestinians fear rights abuses after arrest of human rights lawyer

PALESTINIAN civil rights workers fear that Israeli pressure on PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to crack down on Islamic extremists is forcing him to create a draconian security apparatus in the Palestinian self-rule areas.

Leading Palestinian human rights lawyer Raji Sourani was arrested, interrogated for 16 hours, and subsequently released earlier this week.

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Mr. Sourani had publicly criticized Mr. Arafat's Feb. 8 creation of military-rule courts set up to prosecute Islamic militants accused of perpetrating terrorist attacks on Israelis.

Arafat is being pushed by the Israeli government to rein in Islamic militants before Palestinian elections be held -- the next step in implementing the 1993 self-rule accord between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

''The fact that Israel is applying so much pressure on the Palestinian Authority is forcing it to resort to such measures,'' says Hussein Daifallah, spokesman of the leading Palestinian human rights group al-Haq, based in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

''It is quite an alarming development that could backfire,'' Mr. Daifallah says. ''I don't know how much pressure it will take before the streets of Gaza explode.''

Since Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho were granted self-rule in May, concern has mounted over the methods used in dealing with detainees by the Palestinian Police and the Department of Preventative Security set up by Arafat's appointed Palestinian Authority -- established in July to run Palestinian self-rule.

At least two detainees -- Farid Jarbua in Gaza last July and Salam Jalayta in Jericho last month -- have died while in custody. And a third -- Rashid Fityani -- is missing and feared dead after being interrogated in Jericho's al-Aqsa military headquarters.

Gaza Central Jail in Gaza City is home to hundreds of Palestinian detainees mainly held without indictment on suspicion of collaborating with Israelis or under suspicion of criminal activities.

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The effect of the ''state security'' courts, authorized in a decree signed by Arafat on the eve of last week's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, will be to bypass the jurisdiction of Palestinian civil courts -- which have been operating until now -- and make judicial decisions subject only to the ratification of the executive -- Arafat's appointed Palestinian Authority.

In an apparent attempt to convince Mr. Rabin that he wants peace, Arafat ordered the arrest of 10 Islamic militants on the eve of yesterday's meeting with Rabin at the Erez checkpoint on the Gaza border with Israel.

Rabin, worried about deteriorating security in Israel, is reluctant to extend Palestinian self-rule unless Arafat demonstrates that he can contain Islamic militants operating from Gaza.

Palestinians are demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and a freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements there ahead of Palestinian elections, which were due to have been held by last July.

Mr. Sourani was summoned by Palestinian security officials acting on Arafat's orders shortly after midnight on Wednesday in connection with a statement issued by his Gaza Center for Rights and Law on Sunday.

In his statement, Sourani warned that the creation of the special courts, to be headed by a senior police officer, could ''sanction excessive powers of arrest, detention, and interrogation.''

Sourani accused Arafat of violating his own pledge to respect human rights in the self-rule territories.

''If this is an indication of the future pattern of behavior, it is extremely sinister,'' says Hanan Ashrawi, former PLO spokeswoman and head of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen's Rights. Ms. Ashrawi says the arbitrary arrest of Sourani amounted to an implicit attempt to intimidate Palestinian human rights organizations and their staffs and jeopardizes the rights and freedoms of all Palestinians.

The detention sent shock waves through intellectual and academic circles in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, even though repression by the security arm of the PA in the self-rule areas has been steadily worsening.

''This was a real shock for us,'' says political activist and former Palestinian negotiator Ghassan al-Khatib.

Mr. Khatib says that the arrest of Sourani would further undermine the credibility of Arafat and the legitimacy of his PA.

''This approach of trying to appease Rabin will not help Arafat, and it will not satisfy Rabin,'' he says, adding that Rabin was demanding the arrest, indictment, and sentencing of specific suspects and the handing over of others to Israel.

The leading Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, which has a solid record of opposition to Israeli human rights violations, headed a group of Israeli organizations that condemned the detention and demanded Sourani's release.

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