Abbas okays order imprisoning critics of Palestinian Authority

Order provides for sentences from 1 year to life imprisonment for violators; 30 sites blocked, 5 journalists arrested under law so far.

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Mordechai Sones,

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas
Reuters

Last month, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas approved an order restricting discourse on Palestinian social networks and news sites, and according to his critics, made it possible to imprison any person for reasons of "national unity" or damaging the "social fabric", reports Haaretz.

The order, which operates under the Palestinian Electronic Crimes Law, prescribes punishments ranging from one year to life imprisonment for those who violate it. Arab human rights groups say the decree, which was approved without public discussion and vaguely worded, is the most significant step taken by the Palestinian Authority to restrict freedom of expression in areas under PA control.

A senior official in the Ramallah general prosecution office quoted in Haaretz said the law was needed to combat electronic crimes such as hacking attacks and slander on the Internet. He denied that the purpose of the order was to abuse Abbas's opponents, saying that problems with the existing law allowed cyber criminals to evade punishment. "You can criticize the president and his policies, but you can not accuse the president or anyone else of treason or ridicule him in a picture."

According to the Palestinian Media Center, the PA government in Ramallah blocked 30 websites last month based on the order. Most of the sites are related to Abbas's two main rivals - Mahmoud Dahlan and Hamas. Some of the sites belong to Islamic groups in Iraq and Syria.

In addition, PA intelligence in Ramallah arrested five journalists last week and accused them of violating the order. According to PA prosecution, the five are suspected of "leaking information to hostile elements," without mentioning the hostile elements involved. The detained journalists work on channels affiliated with Hamas, such as Al-Aqsa and Al-Quds, and broadcast from Hevron, Bethlehem, and Shechem (Nablus). Four other journalists were called for questioning after they published critical reviews of the PA on Facebook.

The director of the Al-Haq human rights organization, Sha'wan Jabarin, told Haaretz that the order uses vague and general wording such as maintaining public order, endangering national security, harming national unity, and harming the social fabric, enabling the security apparatus and the general prosecution to arrest and prosecute journalists, social activists, and bloggers, and to block websites that criticize the PA and its leader.