Hamas Preacher Dies While in Palestinian Jail; Kin Allege Torture

Majed Barghouti, 44, died at an intelligence lockup in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday.

A Hamas preacher died in the custody of the Palestinian intelligence service, and his family, citing reports from fellow detainees, alleged Saturday that he had been tortured.

Majed Barghouti, 44, died at an intelligence lockup in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, a week after his arrest.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered an investigation of the death, which came among repeated complaints by Hamas detainees that they were mistreated by Abbas' forces.

An autopsy indicated that Barghouti had died of a heart problem, said Shawan Jabareen, head of the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, adding that he had been shown the four-page medical report.

However, Jabareen and six West Bank legislators called for another autopsy, under supervision.

"Regardless of the cause of death," Jabareen said, "it is clear from witnesses that the conditions of detention are bad, that the treatment is inhumane and that is harms human dignity."

Hamas denounced the death as a crime.

In a statement published in Palestinian newspapers, the intelligence service said Barghouti had complained of chest and abdominal pain and was examined by a hospital doctor two days before his death. Intelligence officials were not available Saturday to comment on the torture allegations.

Barghouti was among hundreds of Hamas activists to be detained by Abbas' security forces in the West Bank following the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza in June. Dozens are currently in custody. In many cases, Hamas activists are released after telling investigators about hidden weapons.

One of Barghouti's relatives, Seif Barghouti, said Saturday that the family learned of the alleged mistreatment from four men who had been arrested along with Barghouti and were released after his death.

The four told the family that they, along with Barghouti, had been tied up in painful positions during interrogation, and that intelligence officers demanded to know where the detainees had hidden weapons.

Seif Barghouti said the released detainees had bruises on their arms and legs, from cuffing. They told the family that Barghouti had fainted repeatedly while being tied up, Seif Barghouti said.

Barghouti was a mosque preacher in the West Bank village of Kobar, and spent several years in Israeli prisons. As the torture allegations spread, Barghouti's relatives blocked a main road near Kobar with rocks and burning tires on Friday evening and Saturday morning, demanding that his interrogators be put on trial. In Friday's protest, Palestinian security forces fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

In Gaza, meanwhile, shops were closed for several hours Saturday to protest the eight-month closure of Gaza. Israel and Egypt severely restricted access to Gaza after the Hamas takeover, and Israel further limited the movement of people and goods during a spike in rocket fire from Gaza in recent weeks.

The closure, accompanied by fuel and electricity reductions by Israel, has deepened poverty and wiped out tens of thousands of jobs. With three-quarters of Gazans now receiving some food aid, international concern about the situation is growing.