Following Hunger Strike, Palestinian Soccer Star Released from Prison

Cristina Kladis

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In another victory resulting from a series of hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners this spring, Palestinian national soccer team member Mahmoud al-Sarsak was released from an Israeli prison on Tuesday amidst celebration from supporters. Following a 90-day hunger strike, al-Sarsak had agreed last month to stop the strike in exchange for freedom.Al-Sarsak began his strike in March to protest his three-year detention without charge or trial. After a brief pause al-Sarsak resumed the strike in April, along with about 1,500 other Palestinian prisoners, to protest Israel’s policy of administrative detention.In July 2009, al-Sarsak was arrested as an unlawful combatant while on the way to sign a contract with a soccer team in the West Bank.  Israel claimed al-Sarsak was active in the Islamic Jihad, which Israel, the United States and other countries classify as a terrorist group.  Al-Sarsak was said to have helped train militants and plant bombs.  Al-Sarsak denied all allegations against him.   
Israel’s “illegal combatants law” allows the detention of anyone alleged to be “taking part in hostile activity against Israel, directly or indirectly.”In 2002, when Israel first unveiled the law, Human Rights Watch characterized it as “perverse legislation [that] disregards basic principles of international law.” Executive Director of Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch Hanny Megally said:In times of armed conflict international law recognizes two categories of individuals—combatants and civilians.  The new law is just another example of Israel ignoring and manipulating international legal standards to suit its own purposes.Al-Sarsak, who appeared to be in stable condition, was immediately delivered in an ambulance to Shifa hospital in Gaza City, where relatives and supporters waited for his arrival.“Mahmoud al-Sarsak has his name written in the records of honor and glory, and what he did will make us more adamant to stand in the face of occupation,” Islamic Jihad leader Nafith Azzam said in a news conference. Former Manchester United player Eric Cantona and FIFA President Sepp Blatter were two notable figures who called for the release of 25-year-old al-Sarak.  Amnesty International also called for the release and treatment of al-Sarsak.“After almost three years in detention, the Israeli authorities have had ample opportunity to charge al-Sarsak with a recognizable criminal offence and bring him to trial,” Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said.  “They have failed to do so, and instead repeatedly affirmed his detention order on the basis of secret information withheld from him and his lawyer.”In May more than a third of Palestinian prisoners agreed to call off their month-long hunger strike in exchange for better conditions in Israeli prisons.  Al-Sarsak was not included in the May deal, but reached a deal for release through a separate negotiation with his lawyer.  Now al-Sarsak is the latest Palestinian hunger striker to be released from prison.    But Palestinian hunger strikes still continue in Israeli prisons, as do indefinite detentions of Palestinians without trials or former charges.  Omar Abu Rois, Palestinian Olympic goalkeeper, is currently being held in Israel without trial.  Akram al-Rekhawi, an Islamist Hamas member who has been on an intermittent hunger strike for about as long as al-Sarsak, is seeking an early release from his nine-year sentence, for which he has served eight, due to his frail physical condition.
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Cristina Kladis is an In These Times summer 2012 intern.
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