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Mohammad Abu Sakha: in prison for making children happy

One year after he was arrested by Israeli forces, Palestinian circus teacher Mohammad Abu Sakha is still behind bars, and without charges.

Picture courtesy of the Palestinian Circus School.I have a sense of deja-vu. One year ago, when I spent the Christmas period desperately contacting news agencies, begging them to publish a story about a friend of mine, Mohammad Abu Sakha, who had been arrested without charge, I didn’t expect that come December 2016, I would be sitting here in the same place, doing it all over again. I guess I was naïve then. I thought that others, if only they knew, would share my outrage at this injustice. And collective outrage would spark change. So all I needed to do was tell people, shine a light on the situation and it would change. A year on, I’ve learned a lot about the way in which power, politics and the personal psyche work together to facilitate and maintain social injustice.

Abu Sakha taught at the Palestinian circus school, bringing joy to hundreds of children across the West Bank.

I became friends with Abu Sakha in 2014 when I spent a year and a half living in Palestine. As with so many Palestinians, I was enamoured by his spirit of positivity, joy and kindness, despite the daily brutality and hardship that he faced under Israeli occupation. But for me, there was something special about Abu Sakha. He taught at the Palestinian circus school, bringing joy to hundreds of children across the West Bank. In addition to this, he had spent the past year volunteering on his day off at a charity for children with physical and learning disabilities and through this, had set up special classes within the circus school for children with disabilities. I remember watching the parents of a young girl cry with pride as their daughter, paralysed from the legs down used her superior upper-body strength to outperform many of her class-mates on the trapeze; beaming as she did so. Abu Sakha went about this work with a quiet and humble integrity that I can only ever aspire to.

On the 14th December 2015, Abu Sakha was arrested. He has been held since then in administrative detention, a process whereby Israel can hold people indefinitely without ever charging them. In the year since his arrest, neither Abu Sakha nor his lawyer have ever been given the opportunity to review the ‘evidence’ allegedly held against him, which violates article 9(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stating that an individual who is arrested has the right to “be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.” According to Amnesty international who have been campaigning for Abu Sakha’s rights since January 2015, Israel’s use of administrative detention amount to “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and violates the central tenets of a fair trial”.

Picture courtesy of the Palestinian Circus School.

Neither Abu Sakha nor his lawyer have ever been given the opportunity to review the ‘evidence’ allegedly held against him

Since Abu Sakha’s arrest, a massive international campaign has been launched. Artists have held street protests in 15 countries across 4 continents. Well-known musicians have endorsed the campaign by wearing T-shirts and talking about the campaign on stage. Over 50 articles have been published on Abu Sakha, including in Time, Huffington Post and al Jazeera. Full page Amnesty ads were published in the Guardian and Metro. Amnesty International have recently selected Abu Sakha’s case as one of their ‘write for rights’ cases and War on Want have selected Abu Sakha’s story as one of five cases to illustrate the plight of administrative detainees in their new online resource.

I never expected that the campaign would get so big. I guess in this respect we can only thank Abu Sakha. Clearly his loveable personality captured the hearts of people across the world. However, it’s important to remember that Abu Sakha’s situation is representative of a much larger issue. There are currently 720 Palestinians being held without charge by the Israeli authorities. West Bank detainees are often deported from the occupied territory and interned inside Israel, in direct violation of Fourth Geneva Convention prohibitions (Articles 49 and 76).

This means that the Israeli authorities have the power to restrict family visits by denying family members the permits required to enter Israel. Although administrative detention is technically legal under international law, it should only be used in ‘extreme measures’ and ‘emergency situations’ (fourth Geneva Convention, Art.78) and is not allowed to be used in a sweeping manner. However, the current number of administrative detainees shows that the occupation is using this policy as a form of collective punishment.

Abu Sakha’s situation is representative of a much larger issue.

On Monday 12th December, Abu Sakha’s second 6-month detention order will end. Following a court hearing on Monday 5th December, which Abu Sakha was denied from entering, it is looking likely that his detention will be renewed. My first reaction is despair. What more can we possibly do? But the people in power depend on despair so, as a society, we have a collective responsibility to fight this feeling. We can do things and we can promote change. Although nothing justifies Abu Sakha’s detention, I hope that at least, by using his story to raise global awareness about the situation faced by Palestinian detainees, we’re making him proud.

If you are in the UK, please write to Tobias Elwood (tobias.ellwood.mp@parliament.uk), FOA British ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, to demand justice for Abu Sakha. If you are are based in another country, please contact your Ministry of Foreign affairs and diplomatic representatives to Israel. An email can go a long way! 

You can find updates on the case here.

About the author

Hannah Prytherch has a degree in psychology and a post graduate diploma in mental health studies. She worked for two years in the NHS helping people deal with the psychological consequences of complex trauma. She then spent two years living in Palestine and Jordan, working with children and youth affected by war and conflict. She is currently training as a clinical psychologist. 


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