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July 18, 2008

Israeli Claims Over Abused Journalist Challenged

by Sanjay Suri

with Mel Frykberg

LONDON - Medical reports seen by IPS appear to confirm the testimony of IPS Gaza correspondent Mohammed Omer of physical abuse at the hands of Israelis last month.

Omer said he was physically and mentally abused at the Allenby crossing into Gaza while on his way back from a European tour. In London, he was awarded the Martha Gellhorn prize for investigative reporting.

Omer left for Europe through an agreement secured by Dutch diplomats to escort him in and out of Gaza. The abuse was reported Jun. 26 as Omer was searched at the crossing in Israeli custody while a Dutch diplomat waited outside.

According to Omer's testimony, he was forced to strip by an Israeli officer wearing a police uniform. He was pinned down on the floor with a boot on the neck. He says he collapsed during interrogation, and when he came round his eyelids were being forcibly opened. He was then dragged along the floor by his feet by officials of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet.

Omer was taken by ambulance from the Allenby crossing to the Jericho hospital in Palestinian territory in the West Bank. From there he was transferred to Gaza after a few hours.

A note from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) denies Omer's account of physical abuse in Israeli custody. "In contradiction to his claims, at no time was the complainant subjected to either physical or mental violence."

But an ambulance report of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society says: "We note finger signs on the neck and chest." A report from the European Gaza Hospital of the Palestinian National Authority's Ministry of Health includes the following notation after examination of Omer: "Ecchymosis (discoloration caused by bleeding underneath, typically caused by bruising) at upper part of chest wall was found."

The report makes these further observations: "Tenderness on the anterior part of the neck and upper back mainly along the right ribs moderate to severe pain," and "by examination the scrotum due to pain varicocele (varicose veins in the spermatic cord) at left side detected and surgery was decided later."

The Israeli GPO note acknowledges that Omer and his baggage were searched "due to suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile elements and had been asked by them to deliver items to Judea and Samaria (towns in the Palestinian West Bank)."

Omer denies he was in touch with "hostile elements" during his lecture tour of Europe. "And there was no question of going to the West Bank," he says. "I only had permission to leave and enter Gaza with Dutch diplomatic escorts, in a closed diplomatic car. I don't deliver items, and in any case I was never headed to the West Bank." Also, the GPO note does not specify what they were looking for.

The Israeli GPO note says further: "Regarding the complainant's collapse, as it were, it should be noted that the paramedic who attended to him found no evidence of a physical cause of collapse. The complainant's behavior raises doubts as to the sincerity of the situation. In any event, the complainant was sent to an infirmary and an ambulance was ordered for him."

According to an AP report, Dr. Diaa Husseini who examined Omer at the hospital in Jericho, found no signs of physical injury. The report said Dr Husseini found Omer had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by emotional stress and was given stomach medication and released after two hours.

Dr. Husseini confirmed to IPS, by phone, that he saw no external injuries on Omer. "However, it is possible that he had further internal injuries, but I never examined him for those as he never complained about any internal pain or other injuries," the doctor said.

Omer says Dr. Husseini only gave him intravenous support and prescribed some medicines because he was to leave Jericho within two hours. "I think what Dr. Husseini did was basically to make me stable, which his staff nurse did."

Omer disputes other statements in the Israeli GPO note. "We should point out that there are numerous additional contradictions in the complainant's allegations," the GPO note says. "For example, in the media he reported that he was humiliated, stripped, and that a gun was held to his head. And yet, in his complaint filed with the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) spokesperson, the complainant complained that two uniformed personnel sprayed his face."

Omer insists: "I was forced at gunpoint to take off my clothes." He had also said to the IDF that "I felt someone putting liquid in my nose and eyes, to wake me up."

In the face of allegations and denials by the Israeli GPO, the focus now shifts to the medical records, which seem to indicate use of force, as Omer had earlier testified.

International press freedom groups have called for an immediate and public investigation of Omer's treatment.

Ahmed Dadou, spokesman from the Dutch Foreign Ministry at The Hague, told IPS shortly after the events, "We are taking this whole incident very seriously as we don't believe the behavior of the Israeli officials is in accordance with a modern democracy."

(Inter Press Service)

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