Leaflets distributed in Ramallah this week claimed that the Palestinian Authority has turned Jericho into a "Palestinian Guantanamo" - a reference to the notorious US detention center in Cuba. The leaflets, signed by the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the ruling Fatah party, said that dozens of Palestinians were being held in two detention centers in Jericho without trial and without the right to see lawyers and family members.
The fliers came in response to reports that five Fatah gunmen from Bethlehem had been transferred to a Jericho lock-up earlier this week. Sources in Bethlehem said the five - Muhammad Bashir, Muhammad Hajahjeh, Firas Hashem, Imad Assaf and Wael Jawabreh - were taken to Jericho with the help of American security agents and in coordination with the IDF.
Confirming that the five men had been detained and transferred to Jericho, the Palestinian Authority denied rumors that they were responsible for last week's shooting attack in Gush Etzion in which three settlers were killed.
According to a senior security officer in Bethlehem, the men, who were recently recruited to the PA security forces, were arrested because they had failed to report to work on time.
Transferring Palestinian detainees from various parts of the West Bank to Jericho has become almost a daily practice over the past four years. The move is often coordinated with the IDF, which continues to control the main highways in the West Bank and has checkpoints at the entrance to each Palestinian city.
Most of the detainees are suspected of involvement in criminal activities, ranging from armed murder to armed robberies and rape. But there are also political prisoners and members of various Palestinian factions. Altogether, Palestinian human rights activists say, there are between 200-350 inmates being held in two major detention centers in Jericho - one of which is run by the ill-reputed General Intelligence Force.
Many of the detainees have never been brought to court. The families of others have complained that they have been prevented from visiting their sons. Last month, The Jerusalem Post was approached by the family of one of the detainees, a resident of the Ezzariyeh village southeast of Jerusalem, who complained that their son has been locked up in Jericho for the past two months. The family claimed that they had been told by eyewitnesses that their son was being subjected to "brutal methods of torture."
Reports about torture and beatings in Jericho have been flowing for some time, prompting some Palestinians to demand the intervention of international human rights organizations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. One Palestinian who was recently released from Jericho told the Post that his interrogators used to urinate on him and beat him with electric wires and clubs. Another complained that he had been tied to the ceiling from his arms for several hours. A third claimed that interrogators had extinguished a cigarette on his body.
"Some of these stories might be exaggerated, but there's no smoke without fire," remarked a human rights activist in Ramallah. "But what is really disturbing is the fact that hundreds of people are being held without trial and are being denied the right to see lawyers and family members. How can we talk about Israeli violations of human rights when we are doing these things to our own people?"
As far as many Palestinians are concerned, what's happening in Jericho is yet another sign that PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas is not serious about reforming his regime.
Prior to his election earlier this year, Abbas promised to end decades of rampant corruption in the PLO leadership and to establish a strong judicial system.
But most of Abbas's promises, including his calls for more democracy, remain unfulfilled. Not only has Abbas failed to fulfill his pledges, he appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
Last month the PA's Chief Justice, Zuhair Sourani, resigned in protest at legislation which he said allowed political interference in the nomination of new judges. In a letter to Abbas, Sourani said he could not continue in his post unless the law, which gives ministers the power to appoint judges, was rescinded. Under the old law, judges were appointed by "presidential decree" after being nominated by a panel of nine senior judges.
"As long as I am in my job I will not allow assaults on the authority of judges and the judicial system in Palestine," Sourani was quoted as saying. "The new law has torn the independence of the judicial system to pieces. The old law was better and we urged it to be developed and improved but we got a worse one. The new law is bad, bad, bad."