Nizar Banat's family reject claims that investigators spoke to raid witnesses

Brother says claims that Palestinian Authority officials met family members are 'false'

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The family of Nizar Banat, a prominent critic of the Palestinian Authority who died in the custody of its security forces last week, have denied claims investigators spoke to relatives who witnessed his arrest.

Palestinian Justice Minister Mohammad Al Shalaldeh said on Wednesday that his investigative committee into Mr Banat's death - which sparked widespread protests against President Mahmoud Abbas - spoke to witnesses of the raid.

"The committee also met with witnesses from the Banat family who were with the deceased in the house he was in," said Mr Al Shalaldeh, who heads the government-formed investigative body into Mr Banat's death.

But Mr Banat's brother Ghassan told The National that officials had not contacted the family, including several of the activist's cousins who were present during the raid on Mr Banat's uncle's home in Hebron.

Ghassan said the family rejected Mr Al Shalaldeh's claims "wholesale" and called for the minister to be investigated.

Mr Al Shalaldeh, he said, "is complicit in Nizar's detention and should himself be investigated".

The minister earlier said Mr Banat’s death was “unnatural” and resulted from blunt force trauma which led to “severe heart and lung failure”.

He said the findings of the investigation would be handed over to the judiciary for legal action against the perpetrators "in accordance to Palestinian law and legislation".

Mr Banat's family claim he was at a house belonging to his uncle when security forces stormed the building shortly after midnight on Thursday last week, assaulting him with metal rods, pepper spray and door-breaching tools before placing him in a van.

A post-mortem examination of Mr Banat's body arranged by the family showed he had sustained injuries to his head, chest, neck, legs and hands and had died within an hour of his arrest.

The outspoken activist died while being taken to a security forces office and was pronounced dead at a government hospital, state news agency Wafa reported.

Activist's death sparks protest and causes alarm

Mr Banat's death sparked anti-government protests across the West Bank which escalated when Palestinian security forces cracked down on the demonstrations and targeted journalists and civilians with violence.

"We need to know who ordered Nizar's assassination, starting with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], and Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh who also serves as Interior Minister," said Salah Abdul Ati, chairman of the International Commission to Support Palestinian Rights.

Palestinian activists, analysts and rights groups say the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the security forces that operate under it, and is therefore not equipped to conduct a fair investigation into the events surrounding Mr Banat's death.

"The [Palestinian] authority has monopolised security institutions to serve and defend the political and ruling elite and as a tool to eliminate dissent," Mr Abdul Ati said in an interview with local news channel Al Kofiya.

Saleh Higazi, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said: “The fact that Nizar Banat died so soon after his shockingly brutal arrest raises serious alarm.

"The Palestinian authorities must ensure the circumstances of his death, including whether he was tortured in custody, are investigated in an independent, impartial and transparent manner. An independent autopsy must be carried out.”

Before Mr Al Shalaldeh's statement, former president of Al Quds University Sari Nusseibeh predicted that the Palestinian Authority would name "scapegoats" to quell public anger.

"The right scapegoats that the authority will bring to the surface will somehow appease the visible, active protests ... but general discontent with the authority will stay," he said.

Although chants for Mr Abbas's removal from power have filled streets across the West Bank for almost a week, Mr Nusseibeh believes that they lack the momentum needed to effectively topple the leader.

"I think the best thing is for Abbas to pack up and leave, but peacefully in an ordered way so that we do not fall into a state of chaos," he said.

Mr Banat was planning to run in the parliamentary elections that would have been the first in 15 years, but were "postponed" indefinitely by Mr Abbas.

Updated: July 01, 2021, 6:05 PM