2 hunger strikers issue ‘final distress call’

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Video edited by Jehan Alfarra, posted by the Institute for Middle East Understanding

Last month when the 2,000 dignity hunger strikers ended their protest against conditions in Israel’s prisons, two detained Palestinians vowed to carry on the battle of empty stomachs. Weeks later despite dwindling media coverage and solidarity protests, their protest continues and the remaining hunger strikers are now on the verge of death. A famed soccer player on Palestine’s national team, Mahmoud Sarsak is on his 82nd day of fast, and diabetic prisoner Akram Rikhawi is on his 58th day of fast.

In light of their dire condition, three days ago the two hunger strikers issued an urgent appeal, stating “there is still enough time and the support that comes late is better than that which does not come at all. It is better that you receive us alive and victorious rather than as lifeless bodies in black bags.”

Mahmoud Sarsak. (Photo: PFLP)

The call to action was posted in Arabic on Addameer’s Facebook page and translated to English by the Electronic Intifada. The appeal is a “final distress call,” from two men limping forward in their protest against Israel’s harsh detention policies:

This is an urgent and final distress call from captivity, slow and programmed death inside the cells of so-called Ramle Prison hospital, that you know that your sons and brothers are still struggling against death and you pay no attention to them and do not remember their cause – as if, after the end of the general strike all the demands of the prisoners were met.

We are still here, continuing our open-ended hunger strike and that battle has not ended.

Despite the longevity of their protests, only yesterday were the two hunger strikers granted independent medical visits from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel). After the inspection, PHR-Israel and Palestinian Council of Human Rights Organizations (PCHRO) released an urgent appeal, detailing Sarsak and Rikhawi’s failing health.

On Sarsak, the appeal said:

Mahmoud has experienced extreme loss of muscle tissue and drastic weight loss. He has lost 33 percent of his body weight, from an original weight of 76 kilos down to his present weight of 51 kilos. He also suffers from frequent incidents of fainting and loss of consciousness, in addition to lapses in memory. The doctor further reported that Mahmoud is in danger of pulse disruptions (arrhythmias) that are endangering his life.

On Rikhawi, PHR-Israel doctors reported:

Akram also already suffers from extreme loss of muscle tissue and drastic weight loss. His weight has decreased from 68 kilos to 50 kilos, which is a total loss of 26.5 percent. The PHR-Israel doctor determined that a combination of inflammation of prior chronic illnesses and the complications of hunger strike render hospitalization immediately necessary.

Akram has been held in the Ramleh prison medical center since his arrest in 2004, as he suffers from many different chronic conditions, including diabetes and asthma. Akram began his hunger strike on 12 April in protest against his request for early release not being granted despite his medical condition. Yesterday, 5 June, his appeal for an early release on medical grounds was rejected. The IPS doctors’ threats to force-feed and force-treat him, in addition to their determination not to recommend his medical condition as worthy of earlier release from prison, has led Akram to regard them with deep distrust. Thus, he often refuses to receive treatment for his chronic illnesses, or the complications they generate.

PHR-Israel also noted a third member of the dignity strikers has joined Sarsak and Rikhawi in protest against Israel’s detention policies:

A third Palestinian prisoner also remains on hunger strike. Samer Al-Barq, 38 years old, has been held in administrative detention, without charge or trial, since 11 July 2010. Samer is currently held in Ramleh prison medical center. Samer participated in the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike from 17 April until 14 May. He re-launched his hunger strike on 21 May in protest against the renewal of his administrative detention order in spite of an understanding in the agreement that ended the mass hunger strike, which implied that current administrative detainees would not have their orders renewed.

Palestinians protesting against Israel’s detention policies, holding posters of Akram Rikhawi. (Photo: CNN/Getty Images)

While Rikhawi and al-Barq are imprisoned under administrative detention, Israel’s practice of incarceration without charge facilitated by “secret evidence,” Sarsak is detained under the draconian “Unlawful Combatants Law.” Although originally intended as a legal tool to bypass political prisoner rights for Lebanese nationals suspected of involvement with Hezbollah, over the past ten years this law has morphed into a means of capturing Palestinians from Gaza and holding them under harsher conditions than those of administrative detention.

Three years ago Sarsak was arrested by Israel when traveling from his Gaza home to the West Bank, in order to join up with his teammates from Palestine’s national football team. While in transit, Israeli authorities used the enemy combatants law to kidnap Sarsak. Since his 2009 arrest, Sarsak has not been charged with any crime. And under Israeli regulations, the soccer star can remain in prison indefinitely, or long as evidence exonerating him from the unknown charge is not presented.

Last year, Israeli human rights group B’tselem challenged the Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law, citing the statue “enables the state to conduct mass arrests, holding the detainees for an unlimited period of time, without effective judicial review.” In B’tselem’s review, the rights group highlighted two components of the law where loose wording renders release from prison nearly impossible:

1. The first presumption is that the release of an unlawful combatant will harm state security. In the wording of the Law:

With regard to this law, a person who is a member of a force that carries out hostilities against the State of Israel or who took part in the hostilities of such a force, whether directly or indirectly, shall be regarded as someone whose release will harm state security as long as the hostilities of that force against the State of Israel have not ended, as long as the contrary has not been proved.

2. The second presumption relates to the existence of hostilities:

The determination of the minister of defense, in a certificate signed by him, that a certain force is carrying out hostilities against the State of Israel or that the hostilities of that force against the State of Israel have come to an end or have not yet come to an end shall serve as evidence in any legal proceeding, unless the contrary is proved.

B’tselem explains, these two tenets of the law “place the burden of proof on the detainee” to show that he is not a threat to the state. In Sarsak’s case, the soccer player is encumbered with proving that he is innocent of secret charges, and also—existentially—that he will not be a future threat to Israel.

But according to the deal Israel struck with the dignity hunger strikers last month, the Jewish state cannot arbitrarily continue imprisonment without charge; the agreement requires Israel to either release or prosecute those imprisoned with secret evidence. Yet Israel has vowed not to release Sarsak, Rikhawi and al-Barq.

Furthermore, yesterday Amnesty International (AI) confirmed Israel is not holding up its end of the deal with the hunger strikers. The prison service has renewed at least 30 administrative detention orders, according to AI’s Ann Harrison.  “Despite many media reports suggesting that the Israeli authorities had agreed as part of the deal to release administrative detainees at the end of their current orders ‘unless significant new information was received,’ our information is that it is business as usual when it comes to detention without charge or trial,” said Harrison.

(h/t Alex Kane)


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