Israel Holding Palestinian Circus Performer in Detention Without Trial for Three Months

Shin Bet says Mohammed Abu Saha is part of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and therefore poses a security risk, but friends insist he dedicates his life to working with children, mostly with special needs.

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Mohammed Abu Saha, a circus performer and teacher, has been under administrative detention since December 14, 2015., has been under administrative detention since December 14, 2015.
Mohammed Abu Saha, a circus performer and teacher, has been under administrative detention since December 14, 2015.Credit: Courtesy

A protest is planned on Wednesday calling for the release of Mohammed Abu Saha, a Palestinian circus performer who has spent approximately the past three months in detention without trial in Israel. The Shin Bet security service said he is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and constitutes a security risk that could not be addressed any other way other than through administrative detention.

Due to Abu Saha's absence, the circus lessons he normally gives to adults and children, notably those with special needs, have not taken place. On Wednesday, individuals from the circus and Israeli activists plan a protest in front of Megiddo prison in the north, where the Palestinian is being held.

Born and raised in the West Bank city of Jenin, Abu Saha, 24, had in recent years been living in Bir Zeit, north of Ramallah — not far from the Palestinian Circus School where he worked. On December 14, he was arrested by the Israel Defense Forces at a checkpoint while en route in a taxi from Nablus to his home. Abu Saha told his lawyer that the soldiers inspected the cab, removed him from the vehicle, pointed a weapon at him and conducted a bodily search in a room at the checkpoint.

In recent months, protests have been held around the world over Abu Saha’s detention without trial. Circus groups, including those in Spain, France, Denmark, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, have posted pictures of themselves on social media holding signs calling for his release. Activists have held small demonstrations and posted videos, including songs specially composed as part of the effort, on the matter. More than 12,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Abu Saha’s release.

In response to an inquiry on the matter, the spokesman’s office at the Shin Bet told Haaretz: “Abu Saha was arrested on December 14, 2015 due to information regarding his recent activity in the Popular Front organization. In light of the danger that Abu Saha poses to the security of the region, and in the absence of an alternative, a Shin Bet recommendation was sent to the military commander to order his administrative detention.”

Abu Saha reportedly said that after about three hours of standing in the cold at the checkpoint, he was transferred to a base at Hawara, where he was held for 13 days. His detention was then extended by a military court judge. His lawyer did not mention the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, saying instead that Abu Saha is accused of being a member of an unidentified illegal organization and that he has been in contact with Palestinians arrested on security offenses.

On December 25, a six-month administrative detention order was issued against the circus performer. At his last meeting with his lawyer, who is from the Addameer prisoner support organization, Abu Saha reportedly said that after he was arrested, he was questioned for a short time but has not been interrogated since. On January 5, the Ofer military court confirmed the detention order.

Abu Saha’s colleagues at the circus school told Haaretz that they don’t understand the detention order. “We know Mohammed very well,” said one of his close friends, who asked not to be identified. “His entire life is the circus and working with children, mostly children with special needs. He even likes to keep them busy during vacations and holidays and to play with them. There are about 30 children in his class and they are very attached to him,” the friend said. “They say he is dangerous and I don’t know what the danger would be from a guy like this, but if there really are suspicions against him, why don’t they put him on trial?”

Sources at the circus school said Abu Saha had been planning to leave for a series of performances abroad. Since 2011, when he was hired as a circus performer and teacher by the school, he has participated in a number of events and festivals in Europe and the United States, in addition to his performances in the West Bank, they said.

Sahar Francis, a lawyer from the Addameer association who is providing Abu Saha assistance, said a hearing for the case is scheduled for March 21 after an appeal that the group filed over the administrative detention order. “The detention is arbitrary and unjustified,” Francis told Haaretz.

“Mohammed is doing welcome work with children with special needs and of course that’s not grounds for arrest.” She said the group obtained confidential information about the case and insisted that the administrative detention had no justification.

Hanita Hendelman, who represents the World Peace Committee and is organizing the protest in Israel over the case, said Abu Saha is well-known in the circus world. “The readiness to take part in the global protest is a result of his radiant and social personality and the good impression that he has left with everyone whom he has met,” she told Haaretz.

Hendelman, who is familiar with the Palestinian circus and its cultural activities, called it a “social circus” of global caliber that works to empower young people from outlying areas of the West Bank. Abu Saha has been a leader in his field of therapeutic work through the circus with children and adults with developmental difficulties, she said, and the circus works in areas where families either cannot pay for the activities or where they pay a nominal fee.

“They empower the children in the refugee camps and bring happiness to children who see destruction and death everywhere,” she said, adding: “It’s serious when a man is detained without an indictment, beyond the fact that it is harming a lot of children for whom he is their teacher, and a lot of children and [other] people for whom he brings joy into their lives. It’s very sad that they are harming Palestinian society, even a peace-creating culture.”

Asked about suspicions against Abu Saha, Hendelman said that as far as she knows, he is not associated with any political organization. “He eats, drinks and sleeps the circus. He is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Circus.”

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