PCHR: Occupied Lives – Sarsak “Free at last.
Palestinian Centre for Human
Mahmoud Sarsak (25), a former footballer for the Palestinian National Team, is free after being held without charge for 3 years in an Israeli jail and 94 days of hunger striking.
Sarsak at home in Rafah
Sarsak was arrested on 22 July 2009 while heading for a football match in the West Bank via the Erez border crossing: “I already had my permits to cross at Erez. They asked me and the other footballers to go for questioning when we got to the crossing. My teammates crossed, but I was left behind and questioned continuously from 10am to 1 am the next day. I was then transferred to the Ashilon prison in a military jeep. It was a 45 minutes drive and they beat me with gun butts as we drove there. I was questioned for 18 consecutive days with no break and the whole time I was in handcuffs. I was then transferred somewhere else for 6 days.”
The then-21-year-old footballer went through a physically and psychologically traumatizing ordeal after his arrest: “I did not even know what I was being held for. My psychological state kept deteriorating. They accused me of going to the West Bank to plan anti-Israeli occupation activities. Each time I said I was just a footballer, they told me that they know what kind of football I play. After I was questioned, I spent 35 days in solitary confinement and then there were 35 days more of being investigated, after which I was transferred to Negev prison in Israel.”
While in Negev, Sarsak and other prisoners were subjected to inhumane conditions and cruel treatment: “We had no rights and lacked proper healthcare and education. We were not even allowed family visits. They used numbers to call us, never our own names. I remember my last number was 74. At times, they would directly fire at prisoners and wound them. The inhumane treatment also came from doctors, the administration and some units of Israel’s security forces. I was beaten on several occasions and they threatened me with solitary confinement if I dared to file a legal case.”
Meanwhile, Sarsak had been classified as an illegal combatant. There was, however, no legal file or charge brought against him. He had court hearings in Jerusalem every 6 months to review his administrative detention status: “At one hearing, the Israeli soldiers treated me very well, but as soon as they found out I was from Gaza, they took me downstairs to a room with no cameras and beat me with clubs and gun butts. There was no legal file, yet my detention kept being extended. In the last hearing, the judge felt that it was unjust to keep me in detention without charge and asked the Israeli Security Forces to follow up and substantiate the reason for my detention. The judge had indicated that I might be released, so when one month later I found out my detention had been extended, I went on hunger strike.”
Sarsak began his hunger strike on 15 March 2012: “On about 3 separate occasions, they lied to my doctor and lawyer by saying that I had been transferred to a different prison so that I could not see them. The prison doctor, who was also an investigator, lied to me when he told me that I had diabetes. At some point, I was even told that my father had died and my mother was on the verge of death because of my hunger strike. The Israelis, through politicians and military leaders, tried to convince me to give up the hunger strike, but I stood my ground. After 40 days, a judicial commission promised to send me back to Gaza. I continued my strike until an official agreement was made.”
Sarsak’s decision to continue his hunger strike was strengthened by the strong support from his family and the international community: “I would get letters from my brother through the ICRC, and he would tell me that my case was going international. This encouraged me, as I felt that people were humane and kind. I felt that sports had brought people together to support me with a message of humanity, irrespective of their religion and race.”
Despite his negative experience, Sarsak feels prepared to face life with newly acquired zeal: “I lost 3 years of my youth, a time when I was supposed to be ambitious, active and do something with my life. I did not enjoy my life and I lived in agony and sadness. But, for what it is worth, my experience has made me more mature. I have felt the suffering of other people and Palestinian prisoners. I plan to keep supporting them. There are 3 others currently on hunger strike and I hope they will also be re-united with their families. Right now, I just need to rest and recover before I decide on what to do next.” Sarsak’s date of release was 10 July 2012.
Sarsak was the last person to be administratively detained under the Incarceration of Unlawful Combatants Law of 2002, a piece of legislation that Israel implemented to detain Gazans without charge. Israel has, and continues to use, administrative detention as an alternative to criminal proceedings. This has resulted in the effective indefinite detention of Palestinian detainees, who are unable to respond to any allegations directed against them. This regime is associated with numerous human rights violations and may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as prohibited under, inter alia, Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and Article 7 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
To see a video narrative given by Mahmoud Sarsak please click here