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Palestinians, Slammed for Suppressing Dissent, Free Protest Organizers

TEL AVIV — A court in the West Bank on Tuesday ordered the Palestinian Authority to release on bail 12 activists detained over the past 10 days for trying to stage an anti-corruption demonstration, arrests that had prompted sharp criticism that officials were using the pandemic to crack down on dissent.

Palestinian authorities have charged the activists with violating emergency coronavirus regulations forbidding mass gatherings, among other infractions, according to one of their lawyers. Their trial is scheduled to begin on Aug. 17.

“It’s very clear that the authority used the coronavirus restrictions as a pretext to arrest people who criticize it,” Muhannad Karaja, a lawyer representing the activists, said in an interview. “They were detained because of their activism.”

The activists had wanted to stage a protest in Manara Square in Ramallah on July 19, with the slogan “Fed Up,” but Palestinian security forces barred the rally and blocked off the area. The security forces began detaining the organizers that day and continued making arrests over several days, Mr. Karaja said.

The activists, many of whom had been active on social media before their arrest, had criticized the Palestinian Authority for a poor response to the pandemic, nepotism and insider dealing. For example, many lashed out at the Palestinian Authority after relatives of senior officials in the governing Fatah party were promoted in the Health Ministry.

The Palestinian Authority attorney general’s office declined to comment on the arrests. Security officials said the organizers had been told the demonstration could not go on as planned given health restrictions, but the activists had tried to proceed anyway.

The number of coronavirus cases has jumped in the West Bank over the past month, growing more than fivefold. More than 10,000 cases have been confirmed in the West Bank and Gaza together, with more than 1,700 reported in the past seven days.

Before their release on Tuesday, the activists pledged not to call for demonstrations as long as the virus proliferates in the West Bank and to report corruption allegations to authorities before publicizing them on social media, lawyers said. Palestinian officials have bridled at some of the activists’ allegations, calling them unfounded.

Bail for some was set at $705, while for others it was put at $1,410.

Most of the charges are subject only to fines, but some of the activists were also charged under a decades-old law barring unauthorized mass gatherings, which is subject to up to a year in prison.

Ammar Dweik, director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, said the detentions appeared to be “somewhat arbitrary and politically motivated.”

“The P.A. should be more tolerant and accepting of criticism, whether it is true or not,” Mr. Dweik said. “It should respond to criticism by issuing denials or explanations, not by detaining the critics.”

Corruption is a top issue for Palestinians. More than 80 percent of Palestinians say they believe the authority’s institutions are tainted by corruption, according to a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in June. And more than a quarter said they thought corruption was the most serious problem facing Palestinian society, according to the survey.

After being let out of jail, Islam Fayez, one of the activists, said he would continue to speak out against corruption.

“How can we confront Israel while we have corruption?” asked Mr. Fayez, 31. “We must clean up our own house before facing our adversary.”

Adam Rasgon reported from Tel-Aviv, and Mohammed Najib from Ramallah.

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