State of Palestine: Free engineer jailed for Facebook post

The Palestinian authorities must immediately drop criminal defamation charges against Ahmad Awartani, a 25-year-old mechanical engineer from the Palestinian village of Anabta in the West Bank, said Amnesty International today ahead of his court hearing on 15 May.
Ahmad Awartani has been detained in Jericho prison since 21 April on charges of defamation relating to a Facebook post in which he wrote, that he and residents of his village of Anabta do not pledge loyalty to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A court in Jericho has extended his pre-trial detention twice since then, most recently on 9 May for an additional seven days.
“The prosecution of Ahmad Awartani is the latest example of the Palestinian authorities’ use of draconian defamation laws to criminalize freedom of expression. For a harmless Facebook post Ahmad Awartani has spent more than three weeks in pre-trial detention, showing just how hell-bent the authorities have become on silencing critics,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Regional Director at Amnesty International.
“Ahmad Awartani must be released immediately, and all criminal charges against him dropped. It is shocking to see that the Palestinian authorities are resorting to defamation laws to stop legitimate expression of political opinion. They must respect the right to freedom of expression for all Palestinians, including those who speak out against them.”
According to his family, on 21 April, an officer from the Palestinian preventative security forces summoned Ahmad Awartani to an interrogation in the nearby city of Tulkarem, saying the interrogation would last around an hour. Later that day his family was told that he was being held in Jericho prison because of a Facebook post.
Ahmad Awartani wrote the Facebook post in question in response to a photo of a banner posted online by a local Facebook group in the village of Anabta on 4 April, stating that Anabta village “renews its allegiance and pledge” to President Mahmoud Abbas.
Ahmad Awartani’s lawyer told Amnesty International that Ahmad was interrogated about the Facebook post immediately after his detention, and has not denied the post or its contents. His lawyer also reported that he was questioned about a conversation Ahmad had had with a colleague about President Abbas.
Under Article 191 of the 1960 Penal Code defamation of a public official or institution is punishable by a prison term ranging from three months up to two years.
“Defamation should not be a criminal offence and no person should be sent to prison or subject to other criminal sanctions for it. The State of Palestine must respect the right of all people to openly express their views on public affairs and criticize the government without fear of prosecution. The authorities must stop locking up peaceful critics and dissidents and reform the Penal Code to protect freedom of expression, which is an essential part of a vibrant and dynamic society,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
The Palestinian authorities have recently intensified their clampdown on freedom of expression arresting journalists, shutting down opposition websites and adopting the restrictive Electronic Crimes Law. An amended version of the law was adopted by the Council of Ministers on 17 April but has not been made public raising concern that provisions allowing disproportionate and arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, and protection of data have remained in place.
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