Marwan Barghouti, A Palestinian Mandela Or Israel’s Worst Nightmare?

Imprisoned in Israel since 2002, Marwan Barghouti may be the only figure who could unite all Palestinians. Israel must decide if it's more risky to release him or keep him in jail. Barghouti offers a rare written exchange with Le Monde.

A mural in Ramallah depicting Marwan Barghouti
A mural in Ramallah depicting Marwan Barghouti
Piotr Smolar

JERUSALEM â€" One of the three men locked up in cell number 28 at the Hadarim prison loves reading. Whether it’s in Arabic, Hebrew or English, he devours history books, poetry collections and biographies of famous Israeli leaders. He wants to know the way they think.

Marwan Barghouti, 56, takes care of himself. He walks and runs. Once a week, he meets with one of his lawyers. Once every two weeks, his wife Fadwa visits and tells him about their four children. In 14 years, he's gotten to see them just a few times. A picture of his face painted or plastered on the walls of the West Bank reminds the children that their father has a special status. He is the hardened résistant, a symbol of the Palestinian national movement.

"My release is bound to happen, sooner or later,” says Marwan Barghouti, in a written interview with Le Monde. "Israel will have to release me, me and the others. During these last decades, it has already happened thanks to the exchange of prisoners or through political discussion.”

Barghouti was in charge of Tanzim, one of the armed branches of Fatah, which is the dominant member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He was accused of directing numerous deadly suicide attacks during the second Intifada, from 2000 to 2004, and was sentenced to five life imprisonments in 2004.

At the end of March, the High Court of Justice rejected an interview request by the center-left newspaper Haaretz. It ruled that Barghouti should make the request himself, which is unimaginable as he does not accept the legitimacy of Israeli justice.

An international campaign in support of his application for the Nobel Peace prize kicked off in 2013, and has grown substantially this year. Even the 1980 Argentinian laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel suggested his name, but success is unlikely. Many defend Barghouti and compare him to South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela â€" which is debatable.

"It is the biggest campaign in the history of the Palestinian people," says Palestinian diplomat Majed Bamya. "No one knew we could rally so many people on prisoners’ issues. We thought that the subject of Israeli security would scare people away, but it’s the total opposite. That absurd sentence against him proved that Israeli justice is part of the occupation."

Barghouti supported the Oslo Accords in 1993, but then realized that bilateral negotiations with Israel were a dead end. He is not opposed to armed combat with Israel, but he considers it ill-timed now. He believes the knife attacks since last October are unproductive as they are not part of a global strategy.

"We believe in people’s resistance accompanied by a campaign of boycott everywhere, BDS-style: Boycott-Disinvestment-Sanctions," he said. "We ask for sanctions against Israel and for it to become isolated until it ends its occupation of Palestinian territories that it started in 1967, and allows for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital."

“He represents an ideal”

Barghouti says that he dreams of a national reconciliation that resolves rivalries between Palestinian factions. A recent survey from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a think tank based in Ramallah, shows that 33% of Palestinians would like Barghouti to head the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) after current president Mahmoud Abbas leaves office, while 24% are estimated to vote for Ismaïl Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas.

"Marwan represents an ideal," says Kaddoura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners Club. “The National movement must regain its identity."

While Fares said he believes in disrupting the functioning of day-to-day life in the West Bank to make Israelis miserable â€" “We shall drill holes in the pipelines, block the roads and cut the cables”, Barghouti disagrees with this strategy.

"He does not consider people an army, ready to be activated by the simple touch of a button,” says Ahmad Ghnaïm, who led Barghouti’s brief presidential campaign in 2005.

Barghouti says his growing popularity does not bother Abbas, a leader whose policies Barghouti has criticized in the past. “As he has said several times, he does not plan on being a candidate in the next election,” Barghouti says in reference to Abbas. But his release is not a priority for Abbas.

“During the last 14 years, if Abbas wanted to do something for Marwan, he would not be in prison right now,” says Barghouti’s wife Fadwa.

Barghouti does not hold back his criticism of Israel: “It is a first for an occupied population to be asked to provide services to the occupant," he says. "As a consequence, security coordination hurts Palestinians. Abbas offered 11 years of security to Israel which was never seen before, and Israel took advantage of it by spreading its colonies, seizing lands, spreading Judaism in Jerusalem and continuing the siege of Gaza, where there’s widespread unemployment and poverty.”

Israeli opinion on Barghouti has been divided for years. In prison, he is seen as a martyr. Outside, he is seen as unpredictable.

One of Barghouti's advantages compared to Fatah's executives is his ability to overcome the war with Hamas, which has been ongoing since 2007. "Marwan wants a strategy accepted by every faction," explains wife Fadwa, while she sits in the comfortable office devoted to her husband's cause in Ramallah. "He was already doing it when he was leading the second Intifada. As soon as he is released, unity will resound." Fadwa went to Tunis and Cairo as a personal messenger for Barghouti. She also met with representatives of Hamas. At the end of December, in the Qatari capital of Doha, Barghouti's friends led secret negotiations, and at the end of January in Istanbul, Turkey, they met with Gaza's Islamic leaders. Those meetings defined discussions between Fatah's delegation and Hamas this spring.

Jibril Rajoub, a potential Abbas successor and member of the Fatah executive committee, advocates a “drastic change” in the PNA’s strategy. “Everyone agrees on saying that it is enough. We are going to deal with the occupant as if it is our enemy,” he said. “I respect Marwan, and I hope he will become the Mandela of Palestine with a Nobel prize. However, my problem is the 7,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, including him. Our issue is national, not individual. Everyone has the right to dream but in the end, Fatah institutions will decide.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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