Following student council elections at Birzeit University on April 22, 2015, 25 students from Birzeit and other universities were reportedly arrested, detained, or summoned for interrogation by Palestinian authorities. Since the elections, students have also reported threats and harassment, including raids on their homes, by Palestinian preventative security officers. The students were primarily current and former representatives of the Islamic Wafaa’ bloc, a student group affiliated with the political wing of Hamas, which won majority control of the Birzeit student council in the elections, defeating the Fatah-affiliated Martyr Yasser Arafat bloc.
On April 25, architecture student and current student representative Jihad Salim was allegedly forced into an unmarked vehicle in front of the Birzeit campus and taken to a preventative security office where he was beaten and held for 24 hours, during which he was interrogated about the elections, denied food and water, and forced to remain in physically strenuous positions. The next day, the house of fourth year student Musab Zaloum, who represented Hamas in the debate leading up to the elections, was reportedly raided while he was not at home. On April 28, Ayman Abu Aram, a Birzeit graduate and the former student council president, was reportedly arrested and accused of “sectarian incitement,” apparently based on his activities while on the student council, but he was not formally charged and was released after 24 hours. On April 30, electrical engineering student and Islamic Wafaa’ bloc member Mohammad Saqer was allegedly arrested and went on a hunger strike to protest his detention. Birzeit student and Islamic Wafaa’ bloc member Omar Kiswani was also reportedly arrested and interrogated following the elections; he alleged that he was interrogated about his political opinions and connections to activists, treated violently and threatened while in custody.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest, detention, and reported custodial abuse of university students and graduates, apparently as a result of student elections and nonviolent expression and association – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State officials have a responsibility not to interfere with freedom of expression and association, so long as such rights are exercised peacefully and responsibly. Arrest, detention and abuse aimed at limiting student expression and association undermine academic freedom and related values such as university autonomy.