Palestinian rights worker `tortured'

A leading Palestinian defender of human rights, Eyad Sarraj, said yesterday that he had been tortured by Palestinian police while under arrest in Gaza. He said he felt "terrible" as he walked unsteadily into court after being hustled out of a police van.

"I have been beaten and my life is in danger," Dr Sarraj wrote earlier in a letter smuggled from prison. "They are trying to frame me with drug charges. Rescue me. The situation is dangerous." A human rights worker in court said Dr Sarraj, whose face showed signs of beating, confirmed to him that the letter was true.

A magistrate ordered Dr Sarraj released on his own recognizance, but he was immediately taken back to jail because it was revealed that a secret Palestinian military court had ordered him detained for a further 15 days. First charged with the possession of 95 grams of hashish, a charge he denies, Dr Sarraj is now being held for assaulting a policeman, who appeared in court with one fist wrapped in bandages. He says the policeman is one of those who beat him.

Dr Sarraj, a 53-year-old psychologist who heads the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, was re-arrested earlier in the week after sending a letter to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, repeating allegations of human rights abuses in the autonomous Palestinian enclaves.

Denying that Dr Sarraj had been tortured, the Palestinian Attorney General, Khalid Qidrah, said: "It is a big lie. I saw him. We don't beat anyone." He added: "We had information that he had drugs."

Bassam Eid of the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem, who talked with Dr Sarraj in court, said yesterday that he was shocked that "none of the 15 Palestinian human rights organisations in Gaza had sent a representative to court. The Palestinian press only report what they are told by the authorities. When I saw Dr Sarraj last week he said that he had been told he would be killed if he continued his criticism." Mr Eid said that Dr Sarraj pushed one of the policeman who crowded into his cell, but denied assaulting anybody.

It is the second time Dr Sarraj has been arrested in recent weeks. The origin of his present persecution by the authorities was an interview he gave to the New York Times in which he said the Palestinian authority used torture and abused human rights.

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