Palestinians demand end to deaths in jail

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THE DEATH in detention of Mustafa Mahmoud Barakat, a 21-year-old Palestinian student, has renewed calls in the occupied territories for an end to summary arrests by Israeli forces and torture in military prisons.

The election of Yitzhak Rabin raised hopes that Israel might answer calls to protect the human rights of Palestinians. But human rights bodies said yesterday there was as yet no evidence of any change in procedures.

Mr Rabin was due to leave Israel for Washington today, for talks on the peace process with President George Bush which are due to begin on Monday.

Mr Barakat died on Tuesday night in the interrogation unit of a small Israeli military jail in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. Israeli authorities say he died of an asthma attack. An independent US forensic scientist is to carry out an autopsy on Sunday.

On Wednesday 29 July, Mr Barakat travelled to the West Bank from Jordan, where he had been studying interior design for the past two and a half years. He was to have celebrated his engagement at a party on Monday. It was his first visit home for some time. Young Palestinian men who leave the occupied territories to study abroad are barred from returning for a minimum of nine months.

When he reached the border crossing point at the Allenby Bridge, Mr Barakat was told by the military authorities to report the following Sunday to the civil administration of the occupied territories for questioning. Israeli authorities say Mr Barakat was suspected of connections to Fatah, a group within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Mr Barakat's family says he had never been arrested before. He had suffered from asthma in the past, but was in fine health on arrival in the West Bank, the family says.

On Sunday, Mr Barakat was told to report the next day to Tulkarm military prison. On Tuesday evening, the authorities reported that Mr Barakat was dead. His family immediately contacted a Palestinian human rights group and asked for an independent inquiry. Mr Barakat is the fourth Palestinian to die in custody this year. The Israeli human rights group B'tselem, has recently produced evidence of widespread torture in Israeli detention centres. All interrogation wings of prisons are closed to human rights groups and to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Under Israeli security laws, suspects can be detained without a given reason for 18 days, without access to a lawyer or relative. After that, their detention can be extended by a military judge.

Since the beginning of the intifada, 90,000 people have been arrested on security grounds, of whom more than 16,000 have been detained without trial in administrative detention. At the moment, 300 Palestinians are in prison in administrative detention.

Human rights groups want detainees to be brought before a court within 72 hours of arrest. They also want access to interrogation centres. In particular, the groups call for the rescinding of an Israeli ruling in 1987 that 'moderate physical pressure' could be exerted on detainees.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian peace negotiator, denounced Mr Barakat's death as another violation of the basic human rights of the Palestinian people. He said: 'This destroys any hope of building the right atmosphere to make the peace process a success.'

Mr Erekat said Mr Barakat's death made it vital for the United Nations to send a team to the occupied territories to monitor Israel's actions against Palestinians. 'The international community and the United Nations is requested to take a decision on this matter immediately to put an end to Israeli practices against security detainees held in jails.'

AMMAN - Nabil Shaath, a senior PLO official, said he expected Israel and the Palestinians, who resume peace talks in Washington soon, to reach a deal on self-rule in the occupied territories by November, Reuter reports.

But Mr Shaath, a political adviser to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, doubted that elections for a 180-seat legislature demanded by the Palestinians would be held by the end of the year. 'We expect to reach important accords leading towards comprehensive agreement on interim Palestinian self-rule by 1 November during talks in Washington.'