When a Palestinian law and order campaign started in the occupied West Bank late last year, Western advisors quickly realised they had a problem: Palestinian forces had no place to put all of their prisoners.
Many of the Palestinian Authority's prisons, some dating back to the Ottoman era, were destroyed by Israel after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 and peace talks broke down.
The few prisons left and the dysfunctional judicial system, plagued by backlogs long before statehood talks were relaunched in November alongside the security crackdown, can't cope with the influx, Palestinian officials and their Western advisors say.
At Ramallah's civil penitentiary, a facility meant to hold no more than 180 inmates, there are 240 prisoners, according to the Palestinian attorney general.
In the town of Jericho, near the Dead Sea, 51 detainees cook, pray and wait in sweltering concrete cells so small they barely have room to stand up and stretch. The facility is meant to hold 40 people. "You sit here and you rot," said Yousef Judeh, a 34-year-old father of five accused of collaborating with Israel. His case still pending, he has been languishing here for two years.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's law and order campaign has improved security in some areas and showcased his government's pledge to comply with a stalled "road map" peace plan, a condition set by Israel for Palestinian statehood. But Western officials say the campaign has also revealed the weakness of the underlying penal system. "There may be order, but there is no law," one of the advisers said.
With the capacity of the civil prisons totalling just 509 inmates for all of the West Bank, home to 2.5 million Palestinians, Attorney General Ahmed al-Moghani said he has little choice but to release some of those arrested for lesser offences, from theft to prostitution. "Sometimes we take decisions that are irresponsible. But this is reality," Moghani said.
In Nablus, the city at the epicentre of Fayyad's campaign, "people were being arrested by the police, coming into a police station and going back out again", said Colin Smith, head of the European Union's training programme for the Palestinian civil police. Some prisoners were detained over activities in militant groups. Others stand accused of committing common crimes.
Israel has long asserted that a so-called "revolving door" policy, whereby some militants are rounded up but subsequently freed, stands as a barrier to any statehood agreement.
Fayyad and many Western officials blame Israel for undermining the security campaign by refusing to halt raids in Nablus and other cities after Palestinian forces deployed.
Despite the hurdles, Fayyad's government says the judiciary has improved. Officials say more criminals are being arrested along with some militants who used to blackmail businessmen.
But Western officials say the current system is ill-equipped to cope with a sustained crackdown, with some 88 percent of current detainees still awaiting final sentencing.
With no cells to spare, police can't execute thousands of outstanding warrants, let alone act on newly issued ones, the officials say. Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Palestinian police to collect witness testimonies and take prisoners to court.
Palestinian investigators don't have forenic labs to analyse evidence and can't afford experts to appear at trial.
"The problem is not only how criminal trials are condcted, but if trials are conducted at all," said Claudia Fenz, an Austrian judge advising the Palestinian civil police on rule of law issues under the EU program.
Outside the system of dilapidated civil prisons, Mueen Barghouthi, a lawyer for the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights, said hundreds of political detainees are being held without legal proceedings in facilities run by security forces loyal to Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip and President Mahmoud Abbas's more secular Fatah faction in the West Bank.
After Hamas's takeover of Gaza last June, Abbas's forces arrested around 1,000 Hamas members in the West Bank, according to U.S. estimates. Hamas forces are believed to have arrested a similar number of Fatah members in the Gaza Strip.
The commission received more than 400 complaints of torture or abuse in 2007 from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, twice the normal number. Israel imprisons about 10,000 Palestinians, and human rights groups say in findings disputed by Israeli authorities that many are routinely mistreated and sometimes tortured.
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