The criminal justice system in the Gaza Strip is riddled with problems including arbitrary arrests, torture and unfair trials, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. It says Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza, has allowed a culture of impunity to spread. Hamas slammed the report as being "politically motivated."
Human Rights Watch carried out interviews with alleged victims and their families, along with lawyers and judges, and reviewed case files and court judgments. It concluded that Hamas security services are committing a range of serious violations.
The rights group says people in Gaza often are arrested without a warrant and are subsequently tortured. It says trials are unfair, with civilians being tried by military courts - in violation of international law - and detainees denied access to a lawyer.
Hamas representatives, who appeared Wednesday at HRW's news conference in Gaza, said the report is riddled with mistakes and is unfair.
But Human Rights Watch says when complaints are made against Hamas, little is done to investigate abuse, and Hamas authorities have failed to investigate and prosecute abusive security officials.
Bill Van Esveld from Human Rights Watch spoke to VOA from Gaza. He said witnesses reported abuse by the Internal Security agency, but also by other agencies, including the drugs unit of the civil police force and police detectives.
“People accused of financial impropriety, people accused of dealing drugs, are being detained by units of the police force and allegedly tortured by them," said Van Esveld. "So this looks increasingly like a problem of impunity, meaning that torture is spreading to different branches of the security service, rather than something that is being orchestrated from on high.”
Hamas officials say since taking power in 2007 they have disciplined hundreds of members of the security services because of abuse.
Speaking to the BBC, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister said the Human Rights Watch report is one-sided, but that allegations of abuse are being investigated. Ghazi Hamad said instances of abuse are exceptional.
“In general I can confirm that there is no torture and we are trying now to follow all the international laws in the jails and in the prisons and everywhere," said Hamad.
Van Esveld said the evidence collected by Human Rights Watch and other campaign groups tells a different story. The Palestine-based Independent Commission for Human Rights says it received at least 147 complaints of torture in 2011.
“To say that torture is not happening flies in the face of all the evidence and it's a very negative response. The first step to solving this problem is to acknowledge that it's going on, that it's severe and the culture of impunity needs to be ended,” he said.
The 43-page report is titled “Abusive System: Criminal Justice in Gaza