AN UNHAPPY BIRTHDAY FOR MOHAMED
By Paul Martin
Mohamed Abu Muailek recently turned 26 and has ‘celebrated’ two birthdays inside a jail in Gaza, where he has been held since April 2009.
It’s a miserable existence, punctuated by very occasional visits from his sister. He had rejected his militant group and was telling friends and foes alike why he now felt firing rockets into civilian areas was wrong and counter-productive – until he was arrested by Hamas Internal Security forces. He claims in a smuggled letter to have been tortured and to have been ‘framed’ for something he did not do.
Both claims are taken seriously enough by Amnesty International for the organisation to have written a severe letter of protest to the Hamas attorney-general. They have had no reply. Nor has Nobel Peace Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has led investigative missions to Gaza previously. He has called for Mohamed’s release – again to no avail.The very fact that he is still alive is a surprise, in that a trial he is undergoing from time to time under military law has still not come up with a verdict.
The sentence for a person accused of ‘collaborating with the enemy’ is death, according to a law formulated originally by the Palestinian Authority and now still being used in a military court operated by Hamas, whose fighters overthrew the official Palestinian Security forces, dominated by the rival movement Fatah, in four days of bloody fighting in June 2007. The United Nations Human Rights commissioner Navi Pillay strongly protested in April 2010 when two alleged collaborators were executed by a Hamas firing squad, and another was recently sentenced to death. It was impossible to conduct a fair trial ‘under current circumstances’, said Mrs. Pillay.
When I had first filmed Mohamed in 2008, he was using Google Earth to find targets inside Israel for his rocket-firing group within the Aburish Brigades. In 2009 he said his motive for leaving his militant group was that rocket-firing targeted at Israeli civilians was counter-productive and wrong. I remain totally convinced that Mohamed was nothing other than a brave dissident. As I said in the film ROCKET MAN UNDER FIRE, which spy would draw attention to himself by agreeing to be filmed by a Western film-maker talking about why he now strongly opposed a key plank of the local regime’s platform: using rockets as a ‘resistance weapon’ against Israel?
One reason Mohamed had changed his mind was an email friendship he established with a fellow-computer enthusiast, who it emerged lived in Tel Aviv. Mohamed had never met an Israeli face to face, and the Israeli, Dan, had also never met a Palestinian. They both agreed to allow me to film them chatting by internet. The Hamas authorities later claimed in a charge sheet that this computer friend must be Mohamed’s spymaster.
In early 2009, as we filmed him in his new role as a dissident, he repeatedly said he knew and accepted the risks. Sure enough, Mohamed ended up being arrested, disappearing for sixty days, and then being put on trial under a military court. His brother Yasser, who lives in Germany, says when their sister finally saw Mohamed during a prison visit some months later she found him a “broken shell of a man” who expected to be executed for a crime he did not commit.
As a long-term foreign correspondent and film producer I believed this was one of the few occasions when I had a moral duty to reveal all I knew to the authorities. However I only got as far as the security courthouse door. A Hamas intelligence officer pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “You are not a witness, you are an accused,” he declared. “Lock him up.” It was the beginning of a nightmarish twenty six days inside the secret Gaza ‘internal security’ prison system, whose existence I had never been aware of despite years of reporting from the Strip.
Prison must have been far worse for Mohamed than for me. My own experience of a Hamas jail — no doubt much better than average because of the international attention and pressure on Hamas over my detention — was hardly encouraging. Quite apart from the long interrogation sessions that led nowhere, the environment was highly volatile. A few ‘highlights’: I faced a mock execution from a guard with a semi-automatic rifle. Later a prison guard shoved me against a wall and threatened to cut my throat. A torture victim with swollen hands and feet was thrown into my cell for a few hours, then removed. On a lighter note I was told not to sing inside my cell – this, said a guard, was un-Islamic unless I was reciting Koranic verses.
But on Day 23 of my captivity the Hamas authorities sent a top official to see me. Visiting British MPs, he revealed, had urged my release. To my amazement he then handed me his cell-phone and I was able to speak to my wife in London. On my way out of Gaza three days later I told reporters and television crews that my release was “a great victory for the right to report in difficult areas without the risk of detention, torture or intimidation”, a remark broadcast and reported worldwide.
But Mohamed remains behind bars and could yet face a firing squad.
I take some small comfort from the fact that BBC WORLD NEWS has run my film, ROCKET MAN UNDER FIRE, four times and is repeating it another four times on December 24-26 as one of its Films of the Year. It may be a reason why Mohamed Abu Muailek is still alive. I believe he will survive the ordeal and retain his strength of purpose. “I am not afraid,” he had said in early 2009 as he viewed Israel from a Gaza hilltop from where his group used to fire their rockets. “These are the basics of a good Muslim: to be a peaceful man, and to tell the truth – whether it kills him, or it brings him more life.”