updated 1/3/2010 4:03:52 PM ET 2010-01-03T21:03:52

Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have stopped torturing Hamas prisoners, ending two years of systematic abuse, Hamas inmates told The Associated Press in jailhouse interviews.

The change in practice, said to have taken effect in October, was confirmed by a West Bank Hamas leader, human rights activists and the Palestinian prime minister. It defuses a potential problem for Washington since the U.S. has been closely involved in training Palestinian troops under the control of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival of the Hamas militants.

Human rights groups say their public pressure campaign helped bring about change, and President Barack Obama's no-torture policy might have helped set a new tone. However, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the decision to halt any abuse was an independent one, part of an effort to make sure a future state is built on the right foundations.

Hamas legislators and human rights researchers said they still get sporadic reports of prisoners being slapped or forced to stand for several hours during interrogation. And security forces continue to keep a close watch on Hamas activities, often arresting activists and holding them for lengthy periods without charge.

However, they said the worst behavior — prisoners beaten with clubs and cables, suspended from the ceiling while tied up in painful positions and forced to stand for days — has ended.

Fayyad confirmed a "dramatic change for the better" in West Bank prisons and said 43 officers have been jailed, fired or demoted for abusing prisoners.

'Excesses' acknowledged
In an interview, he denied torture was ever official policy, but acknowledged past "excesses" that he said stemmed from a flawed culture of revenge.

President Abbas' security forces, dominated by supporters of his Fatah movement, have been clamping down on Hamas in the West Bank since June 2007, when the Islamic militants wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian leader.

Since then, some 4,000 Hamas followers were arrested in the West Bank, and 500 are currently in detention, according to Hamas. Just two weeks ago, dozens of Hamas supporters were detained during the group's anniversary celebrations. In Gaza, Hamas has rounded up hundreds of Fatah supporters, who also have complained of severe mistreatment.

Hamas and Fatah have failed to reconcile, despite many rounds of Egyptian-brokered mediation. However, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said in a visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday that significant progress has been made in reconciliation talks.

In the West Bank, persistent reports of abuse emerged over the past two years from prisons and interrogation centers. Since 2007, eight detainees have died in West Bank lockups and 15 in Gaza, human rights researchers say, though circumstances in some cases remain murky.

The abuse was driven both by a desire to take revenge for the Gaza takeover and by fear that Hamas would seize control of the West Bank, said Salah Mousa, a human rights activist and former member of the Palestinian security forces.

The worst accounts of abuse came from those held at Jneid Prison, a barbed wire-topped jumble of low buildings in Nablus, a former Hamas stronghold.

Last week, an AP team was granted access to the prison, including the wing holding 40 Hamas prisoners. Officials unlocked the metal cell doors on both sides of a hallway and bearded inmates in track suits stepped out. With wardens out of earshot, inmates described past abuse and said it has largely stopped.

Khaled Susah, 48, at Jneid for the past 14 months, pulled back a sleeve to show a swollen right wrist, which he said was the result of being repeatedly handcuffed and strung up from the ceiling during 80 days of interrogation at the start of his detention.

"They were dealing with us like sheep in a slaughter house," said Susah, who was arrested on suspicion of ties to Hamas' military wing but has yet to get a trial date.

Abbas adviser reportedly told inmates
He said inmates were told of the new policy during a prison visit in October by a man who identified himself as an Abbas adviser.

Another inmate, 38-year-old shopkeeper Ayman Hamad, leaned forward to show a deep scar on the bald crown of his head, where he said he was clubbed by a security officer a year ago. "Now things are much better. Beating has stopped, except for some violations here and there," such as slapping, Hamad said.

Other inmates said interrogation still involves being forced to stand, sometimes for several hours.

In the Military Intelligence section of the prison, three windowless isolation cells, each the size of a parking space, are still used at times to hold and pressure those under interrogation, prisoners said. Wardens insisted the cells are only used to punish those breaking prison rules.

The AP was not granted access to the interrogation area. However, Hamas officials who debrief released Hamas prisoners said security agents have stopped abusing prisoners.

"Torture has stopped, following strong articles in the foreign media and threats by human rights organizations of suing Palestinian Authority officials," said Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas leader in the West Bank and a leading critic of the security forces in the past.

Two leading Palestinian rights groups, Al Haq and the Independent Palestinian Commission for Human Rights, both confirmed the abuse has stopped. Shahwan Jabarin of Al Haq said lesser violations persist, such as denying prisoners blankets for days at a time, but the phenomenon is not widespread.

U.S. officials wouldn't comment, noting that they do not train the forces accused of past torture.

Human rights activists say many of the government's measures remain problematic, such as holding Hamas supporters for long periods without charge and firing civil servants believed to be sympathetic to the group. Ramahi estimated that 1,500 Hamas loyalists have been fired from government jobs in the West Bank.

But in Jneid Prison, life is getting a little better.

The cells are still grimy and crowded, with prisoners sleeping in metal bunk beds.

But last month, each cell got a TV, and lawyers and relatives are now allowed to visit once a week, compared with restricted access in the past.

For some of the Muslim prayers, the inmates step out of their cells and kneel on mats on the floor in the hallway. In the past, they were unable to worship as a large group and had to pray in their cells.

One of the second-floor tracts is being renovated, with new tiles and wall paint, and hot water boilers have been installed.

Fayyad, the prime minister, said Hamas militants can be kept at bay with legal means. "If that means we get less information, so be it," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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