Activist Nizat Banat has long been targeted by the Palestinian Authority which has been accused of corruption and security cooperation with Israeli forces.
Hundreds of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, to protests against the death of prominent human rights activist Nizat Banat in police custody.
Slogans directly targeted President Mahmoud Abbas as protesters chanted “Abbas, go”, brandishing portraits of Banat.
Palestinian security forces fired tear gas, and one protester was hit in the face with a canister and hospitalised.
"Enough is enough," protester Sameh Abu Awwad said in Ramallah. He described Banat as a man who had "not hesitated to speak the truth, whatever the cost."
‘An unnatural death’
The death of the human rights activist came after security forces stormed his house and violently arrested him according to his family members.
Banat's cousin, Hussein Banat said around 25 armed men had broken into the activist's house in Hebron around 3AM while he was sleeping and used pepper spray to subdue him.
"A large force entered and aggressively took off all of his clothes, then beat him for eight minutes straight," he said, then Banat was dragged to a vehicle and taken away.
According to Hebron governor Jibrin al-Bakri, during Banat's arrest, "his health deteriorated", and he was taken to hospital, where "after he was examined by doctors, he was pronounced dead."
But the initial findings from the autopsy conducted by Palestine’s Independent Commission for Human rights (ICHR) disputed the governor’s claim.
"The autopsy showed injuries represented by bruises and abrasions in many areas of the body, including the head, neck, shoulders, chest, back, and upper and lower extremities, with binding marks on the wrists and rib fractures," the ICHR said.
"The preliminary autopsy results also indicate ... an unnatural death, but determining the principal cause of death, from a clinical point of view, requires waiting for laboratory results from tissue samples," it added in a statement.
Full autopsy results are expected to be released within 10 days, and will state the cause of death.
43-year-old Banat was a resident of West Bank district of Hebron, and leaves behind a wife and five children
Banat was a prominent political activist and human rights defender. He used to share outspoken videos on social media, publicly criticising the Palestinian Authority over endemic corruption and its security cooperation with the Israeli occupation forces in West Bank. His Facebook page where he shared his critiques was widely followed by around 114,000 users.
The Palestinian Authority was established following the 1993 Oslo Accord and initially, it was meant to be an interim government until the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.
But as the Israeli occupation expanded its occupation over Palestinian territories, the two-state solution only exists on paper. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authorities with limited control and sovereignty in the parts of the West Bank have been accused by Palestinians of being an arm of the Israeli occupation due to its cooperation with Israel.
They allege that the Palestinian Authority is in constant touch with the Israeli army and they allow Israelis to conduct raids and arrest Palestinians in West Bank.
As a former member of the Fatah movement, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority, Banat has criticised this cooperation that has done nothing but expand Israeli control over Palestinians.
And his fierce criticism of President Abbas quickly made him a target and he has been imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority eight times. Banat was also campaigning for upcoming elections as a candidate from the Freedom and Dignity list.
The elections were scheduled for May but were postponed by President Abbas who cited Israeli violations of Palestinians’ voting rights in occupied East Jerusalem. For some Palestinians though, the move is seen as an excuse for Abbas to avoid the election and hold on to power as his popularity is immensel diminished.
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland said the "perpetrators must be brought to justice", while the EU called for a "full, independent and transparent investigation."
Amnesty International said Banat’s brutal arrest and death “raises serious alarms”.
Farid al-Atrash, from the Palestinian rights group the Independent Commission for Human Rights, said Banat's death marked "a dark day in the history of the Palestinian people."
For Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch, his death in PA police custody is “no anomaly”.
“PA security forces have for years systematically arbitrarily arrested, mistreated and tortured critics and dissidents," Shakir said.
"They hit him on his head with iron bars, which they had used to open the windows," Banat's cousin, Hussein, said.
"They beat him continuously for eight minutes. If you came to arrest him, take him. Why the brutality?"