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Palestinians' enforcers work together 'to crush dissent'

Rafiq Alnatsheh and Ahmad Al Mughani are the face of Palestinian Authority (PA) justice.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (R) attends the swearing in of his friend and attorney general Ahmad Al Mughani. Mr Mughani has ordered the detention of journalists and has blocked access to websites opposed to Mr Abbas.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (R) attends the swearing in of his friend and attorney general Ahmad Al Mughani. Mr Mughani has ordered the detention of journalists and has blocked access to websites opposed to Mr Abbas.

RAMALLAH // One is a longtime friend of the Palestinian president and stalwart of the powerful Fatah political faction. The other is a high-profile lawyer who once was officially rebuked for corruption.

Together, Rafiq Alnatsheh and Ahmad Al Mughani are the face of Palestinian Authority (PA) justice.

As chief of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Mr Alnatsheh has overseen investigations into ministers and government critics. Mr Mughani, the attorney general, has ordered the detention of journalists and has blocked access to websites opposed to the PA president and Fatah chairman, Mahmoud Abbas.

To some, the pair are the pillars of law and order in the West Bank. To others, they are beholden to elites and factional politics, and are tools for stifling public dissent over the Palestinian leadership's inability to revive the peace process and halt Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem.

"They work together to crush dissent," said Abdul Sattar Kassem, a critic of the PA and political science professor at Najah University in Nablus. "They operate in a similar way to the regimes of the Arab world, where the law is in their hands, not the people's."

The timing of Mr Alnatsheh's anti-corruption commission's move against Mohammed Rashid, a former adviser to the late Yasser Arafat, reinforces that suspicion.

During a television interview last month, Rashid threatened to reveal details of alleged corruption among Palestinian officials, including a secret bank account in Jordan used by Mr Abbas to illicitly siphon off money meant for the PA.

The following day, Mr Alnatsheh's commission issued a warrant for Rashid's arrest on embezzlement charges and said that Interpol had been requested to help bring him in.

This month Rashid, who remains at large, was convicted by a special court under the anti-corruption commission, sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay a US$15 million (Dh55m) fine.

"I think the priorities are being set on a personal basis," Azmi Shuaibi, an anti-corruption activist in the West Bank, said last month.

Mr Mughani's recent actions coincided with mounting criticism of Mr Abbas and his government.

A journalist who had written about alleged corruption in the PA foreign ministry was detained without charge, as was a woman who referred to Mr Abbas as a "traitor" on Facebook.

An investigation by local media in April revealed that the attorney general had ordered the PA to block access to as many as eight websites critical of the PA president.

International and Palestinian rights groups decried Mr Mughani's rulings. Randa Siniora, the executive director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), criticised Mr Mughani for pursuing political vendettas rather than addressing arbitrary arrests of Islamists and PA officials for refusing to comply with court orders.

She and others also singled out his alleged arbitrary abuse of power. Last Ramadan, he took off the air a popular Palestinian television programme that had poked fun at the PA. He said at the time that it was "a waste of time for people to watch" the show.

"It's obvious he's not doing his job as an [attorney general] properly, and this affects the whole chain of justice," Mrs Siniora said.

Mr Mughani, born to an influential family in the Gaza Strip, is a member of Fatah and represented it in the territory's lawyers' syndicate before becoming a municipal council officer in the 1990s.

After his appointment as attorney general in 2006, a Fatah investigative committee concluded he had used his influence to strong-arm allies into government positions. In 2008, it recommended Mr Mughani's removal from his official post, said a committee member who serves on Fatah's Revolutionary Council. But factional allies of Mr Abbas declined to sack the attorney general.

"We strongly recommended he be forced to step down because of the findings, but it never went anywhere," said the official.

Mr Alnatsheh, who is also a Fatah member, became friends with Mr Abbas in the 1950s while they lived in Qatar.

He then served as Fatah's emissary to Saudi Arabia and as a PA agricultural minister. Mr Abbas appointed him to head the anti-corruption commission, which was founded in 2010.

Palestinian sources familiar with the commission's activities said its investigations are used to punish perceived enemies of the president, citing its investigations into two former PA ministers.

One of the ministers had been in dispute with the president's office over control of 125 acres of agricultural land in Jericho, the sources said. The other was the right-hand man of the PA prime minister,, Salam Fayyad, a rival to Mr Abbas.

"It's obvious that corruption allegations have become a weapon to use against enemies," said one Palestinian official familiar with the investigations, criticising the fact that no details of the commission's inquiries have been made public.

While Mr Alnatsheh has acknowledged the investigation into Mohammed Rashid was initiated by the president's office, he denied accusations that his organisation was being used as a political tool.

Moreover, he said he would investigate Mr Abbas if complaints were filed against the PA president.

"We have not received any allegations against the president," he said, adding: "Let us receive it."

Some suspect that Mr Alnatsheh and Mr Mughani have no choice but to take orders from senior PA officials.

During a meeting last month with several Palestinian human-rights officials, Mr Mughani seemed powerless to address their complaints of official abuse, said Shawan Jabarin, the director of the Ramallah-based human-rights organisation Al Haq.

The attorney general "said that clearly he is trying to do something with the security, but the security didn't reply, which means he is weak in the face of the security establishment", Mr Jabarin said, referring to the PA's powerful security agencies, which fall under Mr Abbas' control.

"He said he would do his best, but we haven't heard from him since."

Neither Mr Mughani nor spokesmen from Mr Abbas' office agreed to be interviewed for this article.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Associated Press

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The original version of this article said Mr Mughani once represented Fatah in the Gaza Strip's journalists' syndicate before becoming a municipal council officer in the 1990s. In fact, he was a member of a lawyers' syndicate.