International groups denounce detention of Palestinian theater leader Bilal Al-Saadi

In its crackdown on Palestinian civil society, Israel last month arrested Bilal Al-Saadi, the chairman of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, at a checkpoint in the occupied territories as he was reportedly returning from a meeting with the Palestinian cultural minister in Ramallah. Al-Saadi was later sentenced to six months of detention on undisclosed charges. The cultural minister assailed the arrest as part of a policy of “abuse and oppression” of cultural institutions.

Two groups have now condemned the arrest and detention: PEN America, and members of the international theater community members who have issued a statement and are seeking signatures.

PEN America condemned the arrest in September and called for Al-Saadi’s release:

“The arrest and imprisonment without trial of Bilal Al-Saadi represents a serious violation of his human rights, while the growing crackdown on Palestinian civil society raises grave concerns about Palestinians’ rights to free expression and artistic freedom,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center. “If the Israeli government has grounds to detain Al-Saadi based on alleged criminal activity they must disclose them and allow him to defend himself.  Absent that, we urge the Israeli authorities to immediately release Al-Saadi and allow him to continue his work without restriction.”

What follows is a statement by the theater community and supporters of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, denouncing the arrest as an effort to intimidate those who choose to “resist through art.” The statement is said to have gathered a couple of hundred signatories. You can go to this link to sign on to the statement.

A Statement By The Theatre Community and Its Supporters Regarding the Arrest and Detention of Bilal Al-Saadi, Chairman of The Freedom Theatre:

We have learned that on September 12, 2022, Bilal Al-Saadi, Board Chairman of The Freedom Theatre located in the Jenin Refugee Camp, was arrested at the Za’atara checkpoint by the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank. The arrest and continuing detention violates Al-Saadi’s basic human rights and international law. Although no reason has been stated for his arrest and he has been unable to see or contest any “secret” evidence, he has been sentenced to six months administrative detention. Given numerous incidents of harassment directed at The Freedom Theatre by the Israeli military, the theatre community is gravely concerned that this arrest represents a continuing assault by the Israeli government on civil society and arts organizations throughout Palestine.

Al-Saadi has not been accused of any crime. In the United States this arrest would be illegal. Under international law this arrest and detention is illegal, and it should be illegal in the Occupied Territory of the West Bank. Over the last decade several members of The Freedom Theatre staff have been arrested and detained without charge. Al-Saadi is not a criminal; in fact, he is a well-respected member of the community. But apparently in the West Bank, being the board chairman of The Freedom Theatre threatens Israel’s military occupation. In its continuing harassment of The Freedom Theatre staff, the Israeli army has taken a man into custody who has chosen to resist through art. We believe that Al-Saadi has been targeted as part of a larger effort to intimidate and harass The Freedom Theatre because of its vital work in serving and empowering refugee youth and its artistic expression of political viewpoints. We are gravely concerned about this matter.
For any just society that claims to be a democracy, where the rule of law presides over public life, it is necessary that all persons living under the laws of that society be protected by the basic principles of due process and from unlawful arrest, torture or other abuse, including illegal and arbitrary imprisonment by the military. For any society to thrive, artists must be free to express themselves. For this reason and out of solidarity with a fellow artistic leader, we ask that the Israeli government show respect for the arts and all people’s basic human rights.
We the undersigned denounce this arrest. We demand the immediate release of Bilal Al-Saadi and if he continues to be incarcerated, we demand he be afforded the proper legal protections due to any person under the law, including a public hearing where the reasons for his arrest are made known and made public, and continuing legal representation and the right to see his family.

[For those who wish to sign, go this link and include your name, profession and/or title/organization and country of residence as they should appear. Or email to [email protected], and if an organization is signing on as an institution, they should let the Friends know in the email.]

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