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Palestinian charged with insulting leader online

By Dalia Nammari

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 22 2011 11:40 a.m. MST

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A reporter tagged in a Facebook image that mocked the Palestinian president said Saturday he faces trial for insulting a public figure, raising concerns about freedom of speech in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

Mamdouh Hamamreh, who works for the pro-Hamas Al-Quds TV, said security forces detained him in September, just hours after the image appeared on his Facebook feed. The picture showed President Mahmoud Abbas — a Hamas rival — standing next to an actor who plays a villain on a popular Syrian soap opera, the reporter said.

Hamamreh said he was held for more than 50 days in a Palestinian lockup after the picture appeared on his feed. He said he had nothing to do with the image. He was released in November and says a hearing has been set for next month.

"I censor myself now," Hamamreh said. "I'm careful of what I say."

Facebook allows people to tag images, video clips or articles so they automatically appear on another person's profile with that person's name attached. The second person can remove the item.

Abbas' security forces have previously mined social networks to catch dissenters. In November, an atheist blogger was arrested after posting incendiary comments about Islam on Facebook.

His forces also have cracked down frequently on West Bank-based loyalists of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized control of Gaza in 2007 after routing Abbas' fighters.

Gaza's Hamas rulers have also gone after Abbas supporters and other opponents, including reporters. Riham Abu Aita, a media rights activist, said about 30 reporters were detained in the West Bank and Gaza in 2009, but did not have figures yet for 2010.

Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Abbas government, said there is considerable free speech in the West Bank but special circumstances needed to be taken into account — an apparent reference to the bitter rivalry between Abbas and Hamas.

In another development, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she "deplores" the continued imprisonment of prominent Palestinian activist Abdullah Abu Rahmeh by Israel. Since 2005, Abu Rahmeh has been a key figure in weekly protests against Israel's separation barrier which cuts into West Bank land.

In Friday's statement, she said the Palestinians have the right to engage in peaceful demonstrations.

He was to have been released Nov. 18, after serving his yearlong sentence. However, earlier this month, an Israeli military court extended his sentence by four months following a request by a military prosecutor.

Israel has portrayed the weekly protests as violent riots. Routinely, Palestinian demonstrators throw stones at Israeli forces who fire tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and at times live rounds.

Associated Press reporter Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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