Fall of West Bank torturer

The Palestinian Authority, which rules Gaza and parts of the West Bank, has sacked its chief law officer, notorious for his tolerance of torture, arbitrary arrests and killings by the Palestinian security forces, and is holding him under house arrest suspected of accepting bribes.

Brigadier General Zakariya Baloushi, a senior official of the Palestinian police in Gaza confirmed that Khalid al-Kidrah, the Palestinian Attorney General, has been fired because "he received bribes and commit-ted several violations". While not confirming that Mr al-Kidrah was formally under arrest Brig Gen Baloushi said: "It is better for him to be at home ...We are protecting him against angry people."

In his three years as Attorney General, Mr al-Kidrah became a symbol to Palestinians of everything rotten in the auto- nomous enclaves which they hope will become an independent state. Torture became endemic. In January, a business- man, Youssef Baba in Nablus, died of a gangrenous wound caused by burns from the electric element of a kettle pressed to his upper arm. He had been tortured over a month during which time he was admitted to a Nablus hospital five times. Palestinian military intelligence refused to let doctors amputate his arm to save his life.

Mr al-Kidrah was notorious for his refusal to respond to pleas from prisoners and their relatives. In January, Fayez al-Qumseih, died in Bethlehem of a heart attack brought on by a beating, though the local prosecutor had told Mr al-Kidrah two months before that there were no grounds for holding him, but the Attorney General had failed to order his release. The only time he showed any speed was in prosecuting journalists who criticised the Palestinian Authority.

The firing of Mr al-Kidrah at the end of last week is being greeted with relief by human rights organisations, who think it may be a turning point for the rule of law in Palestinian areas. Dr Iyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and a leading human rights campaigner from Gaza, said yesterday: "The firing of the Attorney General marks a real change. He closed his eyes to any violation of human rights. Before, nobody would testify, everybody was scared." He says complaints of human rights violations have declined in recent months and, since Mr Baba was killed, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, had ordered the Palestinian security forces to stop using torture.

Mr al-Kidrah himself denies charges of corruption. When The Independent published pictures of the bodies of Mr Baba and Mr al-Qumseih in February, he wrote to the paper to deny that he "viewed all Palestinian human rights activists as 'a fifth column'." He said that he himself had been imprisoned by Israel and added: "Allow me please to emphasise the simple fact that we here promptly and actively investigate all reports about human rights abuses."

This was news to Dr Sarraj, now the Palestinian Commissioner General for Human Rights, who was arrested three times in Gaza on the orders of Mr al-Kidrah for raising human rights issues, though this was never the official charge.

After being arrested last December, he was beaten, kicked and sentenced to 15 days in prison for assaulting an armed Palestinian policeman. On another occasion police used the fact that "I had a professor of psychiatry from Canada staying with me when I was arrested to suggest I was a Canadian spy."

The vulnerability of Dr Sarraj, a distinguished medical practitioner and Palestinian patriot, to arbitrary arrest showed the lack of restraint of the security services and police. He says: "During my interrogation they told me they had found a large piece of hashish in a drawer in my desk. I offered them $10,000 (pounds 6,100) if they showed me the drawer it came from because my desk has no drawers."

Mr al-Kidrah's fall was sudden. It followed the detention of a private lawyer who had knowledge of the former attorney general's financial affairs. Dr Sarraj says a member of the family of a prisoner would "pay the bail money, would not receive a receipt and the money would not be seen again". After an investigation, Freih Abu Medein, the Palestinian Justice Minister, insisted to Mr Arafat that Mr al-Kidrah be fired or he would resign. Mr Arafat agreed. Mr al-Kidrah was told to go.

The future for Mr al-Kidrah is unclear. Bassam Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group said yesterday that he had been told by officials in the former attorney general's office that "his ID and passport are being held by the authorities". Dr Sarraj has written to Mr Arafat demanding that Mr al-Kidrah be given a trial, something denied to many prisoners when he was attorney general.

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