“On day 67 of my hunger strike I was transferred to al Jalameh interrogation centre and tortured. I was forced to stay in stress positions, naked, and I was badly beaten. I consequently went into a coma.”
Mohammed al Taj, aged 41, is visibly weak and speaks faintly, taking breaks to catch his breath after every few sentences. He suffers from pulmonary fibrosis and heart hypertrophy, and is in a stable condition in the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah, where he has been since his release from prison on 18 April 2013. Behind the headboard of his bed, a kafiyya and a Palestinian flag hang on the wall, and a dozen family and friends are gathered to give him a hero’s welcome.
Al Taj went on a 77-day hunger strike just over a year ago to protest against the medical neglect he faced in prison in Israel. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2003 and first complained of breathing difficulties in 2004 after being “subjected to various types of torture, including poisonous gas, beatings and prolonged exposure to the sun,” which he believes are responsible for his lung condition. He says he received no treatment for years until his condition rapidly deteriorated. After years of complaining about his condition, he did not have a CT scan until 2010 – after which the prison authorities reported that the results “were lost”. He says that he has never received the promised appropriate treatment, in violation of his rights under international law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Dr Ruchama Marton is the founder and director of Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHR-I). The organisation acts to safeguard prisoners’ rights to diagnosis, medical care and suitable conditions of imprisonment. She says that medical neglect within the prison system is very common for Palestinian prisoners.
“It is very hard for a Palestinian prisoner to get a good medical examination and diagnosis,” says Dr Marton. This is partly due to prison doctors having the most basic level of medical training. “To get the right treatment after getting the right diagnosis is even harder,” she adds. “Prisoners can complain for a very long period of time before a doctor will see them, and then it’s not guaranteed that the doctor will really examine them and give them the correct diagnosis.”
Most Palestinian patients in Israeli jails are simply given pain killers rather than proper treatment, she says.
Al Taj’s early release on medical grounds – he had served two-thirds of his sentence – is rare.
“When they told me that I would be released, I figured I would be ‘Martyr number 208′ as Israel doesn’t release prisoners unless they’ve finished their sentence or are about to die,” al Taj says.
Fifty-four Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons have died from medical negligence, and 207 Palestinian prisoners have died in Israeli jails since 1967, according to the Palestinian Authority.
Al Taj regards Shimon Peres’s ‘Presidential pardon’ as nothing more than a continuation of the prison service’s refusal to give adequate medical treatment. “I was only released because they didn’t want to give me a lung transplant, they refused to pay for it.” He also believes that Israel did not want another Palestinian patient dying in custody, following the widespread, angry protests that filled streets in the West Bank and Gaza after the death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh in March. Abu Hamdiyeh, whose death was attributed to medical negligence, died in custody in an Israeli hospital from advanced cancer of the throat and spinal column.
Addameer, a Palestinian human rights organisation that advocates for Palestinian prisoners’ rights, says that a key problem behind the systematic policy of medical negligence by the Israeli Prison Service is that “doctors and other medical staff employed by the IPS find themselves in a situation of ‘dual loyalty’, whereby their primary obligation is towards the State and the Israeli security apparatus, rather than the patient.”
Addameer and PHR-I say Israeli medical doctors and psychiatrists employed by the prison authorities are complicit in medical negligence, ill-treatment and torture and physical and mental abuse, ‘for fear of losing their jobs’.
Dr Marton says that PHR-I has been campaigning with no success to change the very foundations of this system so that doctors and medical staff will instead be employed by the Ministry of Health, thereby granting them greater professional freedom.
With more and more Palestinian prisoners reporting systematic medical neglect in Israeli prisons, and with many turning to hunger strikes to demand their rights, al Taj, speaking to MAP, calls on the British public to intervene.
“We need our issue to be raised internationally. We need people in Britain to deliver this message to their governments as we are in a vulnerable situation and need international support to pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation and to respect the Geneva Convention and prisoners’ rights. We hope that the British public will continue their support and campaigns of raising awareness, but also to come here to witness our situation and our cause directly, and to report what they see, and to raise our issue on a global level.”
(Source / 13.05.2013)