Palestinian authorities admit security forces killed Arab prisoner in Gaza


JERUSALEM -- Palestinian authorities have acknowledged that their security forces killed an Arab prisoner, the first known case of a suspect dying in custody since Palestinian rule began two months ago in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.

"It's clearly a case of maltreatment and torture, and it is a case that horrified everybody," said Hanan Ashrawi, the former Palestinian spokeswoman, who leads a new group called the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights.

Palestinian human rights monitors regard the incident as a test of the intentions of the self-rule leadership, which has promised to build a democracy and to avoid abuses that are commonplace across the Middle East. That commitment was affirmed several times over the last week by Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, during his visit to Gaza and Jericho.

It is a sensitive matter for Palestinians, who for years have accused Israel of systematically torturing and mistreating prisoners in the occupied territories, charges denied by the Israelis but supported by international human-rights groups.

Particularly in turbulent Gaza, Palestinians skeptical about the new national authority have expressed wariness about how much of an improvement their police force will be.

So it came as a jolt for many Gazans to learn about the death this week of Farid Jarbua, 28, a taxi driver who was arrested on June 25 oncharges of drug dealing and of having collaborated with Israel before the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers in mid-May. Mr. Jarbua was held at a prison in Gaza City and had been questioned by agents of the "protective security" force, in effect the secret police.

How he died was not made clear, though some reports said he had been beaten. A statement on Friday from justice officials in the provisional government sworn in by Mr. Arafat this week said only that a pathologist had determined that "the death was the result of the use of violence."

Also not clear was whether the police had tried to hide the killing; there was a three-day gap between the death on Tuesday and the official announcement. But the dead man's brother, Said Jarbua, said officers had told him that the family could ask for compensation and that the police wanted to take part in the funeral as a way to apologize.

Although this is the only known death, Seraj Khuzondar, who heads a human rights group in Gaza, said there was at least one other case in recent weeks in which the security forces were accused of having tortured a prisoner. In all, 40 to 45 Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho are believed to have been taken into police custody thus far.

Mrs. Ashrawi, the human rights advocate, said that while her own inquiry was not finished, the fact that the authorities reported Mr. Jarbua's death "assures us at the beginning that there was neither an attempt to cover up or justify the use of torture."

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