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Tensions flare over Hamas preacher death

The family of a Hamas preacher who died in Palestinian custody alleged Saturday that the prisoner was tortured by interrogators from the rival Fatah faction.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The family of a Hamas preacher who died in Palestinian custody alleged Saturday that the prisoner was tortured by interrogators from the rival Fatah faction.

Authorities confirmed the death on Friday of Majed Barghouti, 44, at an intelligence lockup in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a week after his arrest. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah forces control the prison, ordered an investigation.

The death raises new concerns that Fatah forces are violating human rights in their crackdown on the Islamic militant group Hamas. Hamas detainees have repeatedly complained of mistreatment by Abbas' forces and Gaza's Hamas leadership called Barghouti's death a crime.

Hamas and Fatah are locked in a power struggle for control of the Palestinian territories. Hamas forcibly seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June but Abbas and Fatah control a rival government in the West Bank.

Autopsy indicates heart problem
An autopsy indicated that Barghouti had died of a heart problem, said Shawan Jabareen, head of the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, who said he had seen the medical report.

Jabareen and six West Bank legislators called for another autopsy, under supervision.

Regardless of the cause of death, Jabareen said, "it is clear from witnesses that the conditions of detention are bad, that the treatment is inhumane and that it harms human dignity."

Barghouti, a father of eight, was a mosque preacher in the West Bank village of Kobar, and spent several years in Israeli prisons. He was among hundreds of Hamas activists to be detained by Abbas' security forces in the West Bank following the takeover of Gaza. Dozens are in custody.

One of Barghouti's relatives, cousin Seif Barghouti, said Saturday that the family learned of the alleged mistreatment from four men who had been arrested with Barghouti and were released after his death.

The four told the family that they, along with Barghouti, had been tied up in painful positions during interrogation, and that intelligence officers demanded to know where the detainees had hidden weapons.

Allegations of torture
One of the released detainees, Azzam Sahel, showed a reporter his bruised wrists he said he sustained while being tied up in painful positions, including being forced to stand on his toes for extended periods.

Sahel said he was forced to sleep on cardboard on a wet floor, dressed only in a T-shirt and underwear. Sahel said Barghouti was in a nearby cell, and that he could hear him shouting for help repeatedly. He did not witness actual mistreatment of Barghouti, he said.

In a statement published in Palestinian newspapers, the intelligence service said Barghouti had complained of chest and abdominal pain and was examined by a hospital doctor two days before his death.

Barghouti's wife, Fawziyeh, said her husband was in good health when he was arrested.

Intelligence officials were not available Saturday to comment on the torture allegations.

'We condemn this crime'
As the allegations spread Friday evening and Saturday morning, Barghouti's relatives blocked a main road near Kobar with rocks and burning tires, demanding that his interrogators be put on trial. In Friday's protest, Palestinian security forces fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

The protests forced nearby Bir Zeit University to close Saturday. In the evening, Hamas organized another protest in Barghouti's honor in Gaza.

In Gaza, Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu said the West Bank government Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, appointed after the Gaza takeover, is not legitimate and has no authority to carry out arrests.

"We condemn this crime, we consider it a murder," Nunu said. "We call on citizens not to obey any arrest orders."

Fear of continued violence
Hassan Khreisheh, an independent Palestinian legislator, called for an end to what he called politically motivated arrests by Fatah.

"This event raises concern and fear for public freedom. This death rings the bell of danger regarding the continuing arrests in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," he said.

In other violence Saturday, three Palestinians were killed in an Israeli missile strike in northern Gaza. Palestinian officials said the three casualties were all civilians having a picnic in an open field, while the army said it had targeted Palestinian militants on their way to fire mortar shells at Israel.