Doubts Cast in Gilad Shalit/Palestinian Prisoner Swap

Today, we woke up to find the exchange of Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and 477 Palestinian prisoners.

As news services around the world covering the exchange highlight Gilad Shalit’s ordeal of being held for five years in virtual incommunicado detention and the story of the Palestinian prisoners being released – some having been held for decades – one thing is glaringly obvious – this whole episode highlights the need for the humane treatment of all detainees – whether Palestinian or Israeli.

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Iraqi prisoners on hunger strike demand better conditions

Dozens of prisoners at Al-Hilla Prison in Iraq went on hunger strike on Sunday demanding better prison conditions including a solution to overcrowding, according to Al-Sharqiyah Television. Conditions of other prisons across Iraq and Kurdistan are not much better, with shortages of clean water and inadequate sanitation facilities, as well as poor ventilation, all of which continue to cause serious health risks.

Al-Hilla prison’s capacity is 750 but it currently holds over 1500 prisoners. This is a recurring problem in Iraq. In 2008 one prison was so overcrowded that detainees had to sleep in shifts. In 2010 about 100 detainees were crammed into two windowless vans designed to carry 20 people each, for a trip that took about one hour. As a result 22 detainees collapsed and seven died of asphyxiation.

In addition to poor prison conditions many prisoners report that they have no access to doctors or to needed medications. One example is Ibrahim ‘Abdel-Sattar who died in al-Kadhimiya prison on 29 October 2010. He was not treated for stomach cancer and was only taken to the hospital the day before he died.

Take action to improve prison conditions in Iraq by writing to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Send letters to the Iraqi Embassy at 3421 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20007.

Gilad Shalit video released in exchange for 20 Palestinian prisoners

Hamas, the de facto administration in the Gaza Strip, released a video of 23 year old Gilad Shalit.  Gilad, an Israeli soldier, was seized by armed Palestinian groups over three years ago in June 2006 in a cross ‘border’ raid.  The video is significant as armed Palestinian groups have been detaining him incommunicado except for a couple of letters and an audio tape released over two years ago. Gilad has been denied communication with not only his family, but also the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which contravenes international law. Since his capture, Amnesty International has consistently called for his releaseand for the ICRC to have access to him.  AI has done this using both public actions and behind the scenes dialogue.

Negotiations for Gilad Shalit’s release have intensified under the current government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahuand Gilad’s family as well as the nation has been increasingly concerned about his condition and treatment.  The following video, although in Hebrew, shows a pale, but otherwise healthy looking Gilad Shalit holding a paper from September 14th.

In exchange for the video, which Israel requested as ‘proof of life’, Israel released 19 Palestinian women prisoners; another female prisoner is due to be released sometime next week.  Israel holds several thousand Palestinians, including hundreds of children, in Israeli prisons against international law.  Hundreds of detainees are also held without charge or trial under administrative detention orders which can be repeatedly renewed and often includes children.  Currently, one child is held under administrative detention, Hamdi Al-Ta’mari.  Amnesty International is working on his case.  More information available at http://www.dci-pal.org/english/display.cfm?docID=1096&categoryid=16.

Others have been convicted in unfair trials in military courts.  It is a major concern that prisoners are held in Israeli prisons instead of in the occupied Palestinian territories which is against international law.  Since detainees are held within Israel proper, it is very difficult for families to visit minors in detention or other family members.

This video produced by B’tselem explains how the imprisonment of Palestinians inside Israel proper affects families, including the children:

This exchange, although bringing temporary relief to the Shalit family and joy to the families of the 20 detained female prisoners just highlights the concern Amnesty International outlined in the document ‘Detainees used as bargaining chips by both sides in Israel/Gaza conflict’ published in March 2009.  Gilad Shalit, it is believed was taken as leverage in future negotiations with Israeli authorities and many believe Palestinians are regularly taken by Israeli forces for many reasons other than security and one of them is for leverage as well.  Hostage taking, that is threatening to harm or continue to detain a detained person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing something as a condition of their release is expressly prohibited under international law.  Such practice threatens the fundamental right to life, personal integrity and liberty and is expressly prohibited by international humanitarian law.  Under no circumstances is the taking of hostages justifiable.

Negotiations continue with Israel wanting Gilad Shalit released immediately and the Palestinians asking for at least 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to be released and/or an end to the punishing blockade of the strip.

Update: Iran Releases 140 Prisoners

The Iranian authorities have announced they have released 140 prisoners from Evin Prison in northern Tehran, reports Reuters. Parliament official Kazem Jalali says that 150 prisoners, arrested during the uprising after the June 12th Presidential election, still remain behind bars.

Ayatollah Khamenei has also ordered the closure of a detainment center in Kahrizak after it failed to “preserve the rights of detainees”. Whether the prisoners in that prison were released or transferred elsewhere remains to be seen.

Not So Merry Go 'Round of Justice in Zimbabwe

It’s a bad time to be defender of human rights in Zimbabwe.

Late last year, Zimbabwe authorities abducted eighteen human rights defenders and political activists.  Their families feared them dead.   Those seized were eventually dropped off at police stations and processed for crimes against the state, including sabotage, terrorism and treason.  During their four months in captivity, the activists claim they were tortured and ill-treated by state agents.

Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was one of those abducted last year.

Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was one of those abducted last year.

Thankfully bail conditions were settled in March and April for most.  However, three of those originally detained – Kisimusi Dhlamini, Gandhi Mudzingwa and Andrison Manyere – were released only to be re-arrested in their hospital beds three days later.

Earlier this week, the eighteen activists reappeared in court where new indictments were filed by the Zimbabwe Attorney General.  Based on the new indictments, bail was revoked and they were all returned to prison.  Following immediate international condemnation, most of the prisoners were granted bail again on Wednesday when President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai intervened and ordered the Attorney General to allow bail.

Not to make light of an awful situation, but the Zimbabwe government might want to consider putting  revolving doors on the courthouse and prisons because apparently, being a human rights defender or political activist in Zimbabwe grants you a “go straight to jail, do not pass go” card on a regular basis.

The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe escalated drastically following elections in March of 2008.  State sponsored violence led to large numbers of torture, disappearances and sexual assaults. Regional authorities negotiated a power sharing agreement in October; however activists and human rights defenders continued to be targeted for their efforts to provide a better quality of life, such as equitable food aid distribution for Zimbabweans.

Listen to a 30 second audio clip of activist Jestina Mukoko after her release in March, discussing the support her and her family received during her ordeal from Amnesty International members.

Written by Sarah Hager, Southern Africa Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA