Mahmoud Abbas decree gives Palestinians freedom of expression ahead of elections

People cannot be prosecuted or jailed for 'reasons related to freedom of expression and political affiliation'

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas looks on following a briefing on President Donald Trump's Mideast plan on February 11, 2020 in New York. - Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas told the UN Security Council that the world should reject President Donald Trump's Middle East plan, which he said would limit Palestinian sovereignty in a "Swiss cheese" deal. "We reject the Israeli-American plan," which "throws into question the legitimate rights of the Palestinians," Abbas said, brandishing a large map of Palestine as conceived by the US proposal. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)
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Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has issued a decree ordering the respect of freedom of expression ahead of legislative elections in May.

The step was demanded by Palestinian factions who discussed the polls in talks brokered by Egypt this month.

In a subsequent decree, Mr Abbas allocated seven seats for Christians in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council. The council, which the Palestinian Authority president dismissed in 2018, had six representatives for Christians, who make up 1 per cent of the Palestinian population.

The decree bans all police pursuits and detentions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the rival Hamas group, for "reasons related to freedom of expression and political affiliation." Prisoners held on such justifications must be freed, the decree says.

The elections on May 22 are hoped to be the first in the Palestinian territories since the militant Hamas movement won the last vote in the Palestinian territories in 2006.

A year later, the group fought deadly street battles with pro-Abbas forces, culminating with Hamas taking over Gaza and separating it politically from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority administers autonomous enclaves.

Through 14 years of division, rights groups accused Hamas and the PA of cracking down on each side’s adversaries and opponents.

Hamas has urged the halt of all politically related arrests in the West Bank, and Mr Abbas’s Fatah party demanded the same in Gaza.

The call for elections came in response to a series of crises Fatah and Hamas face that weakened the standing of the Palestinian cause in the turbulent regional and international spectrum. The PA is struggling with financial crisis and failure to reach a peace deal with Israel to create Palestinian statehood. In Gaza, Hamas has held power under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade meant to isolate it and weaken its weaponry, rendering it unable to deliver the minimum of basic services.

Palestinian factions are heading to Cairo next month for another round of talks in a bid to settle thorny issues that have blocked them from mending their rift, including security, employees, judiciary and expanding the Palestine Liberation Organization.