Israel freed the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner held without trial Wednesday, signaling a softening of a policy criticized as one of the country's most serious violations of human rights.
The prisoner, Ahmad Qatamesh, 46, had been jailed for five years and seven months without trial on suspicion of being a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant group opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian accords. He was freed Wednesday morning from a jail in Israel and returned to his home in the West Bank town of El-Bireh.The release followed a growing campaign against detention without trial by Israeli human rights groups, lawyers, leftist politicians and writers. In recent months they have published advertisements, lobbied and waged court battles to win the release of the detainees, focusing on Qatamesh. His case, which was also taken up by Amnesty International, apparently became a public relations liability for the Israeli government.
Nearly 200 Palestinians are now held without trial in Israeli jails for renewable six-month periods under what is known as administrative detention. As the campaign in Israel to release such detainees has gained momentum, scores have been freed, including eight who were jailed for more than three years.
Israeli television reports said that Qatamesh's release was part of a deal to free several leaders of the Popular Front held without trial in exchange for their renunciation of anti-Israeli violence.
Qatamesh denied signing any agreement but asserted in interviews with Israel's two main television channels that he did not advocate terrorism.
"My colleagues and I in administrative detention do not practice violence," he said. "If we did, we would have been put on trial. We will also not practice violence that would harm the security of the Israeli public, directly or indirectly."
He added that as a writer, however, he would "go on inciting and writing against the occupation." Qatamesh has written four books, including an account from prison of his interrogation by the Israelis.
Arriving home in El-Bireh, Qatamesh was showered with flower petals as he hugged his wife, Suha, and 9-year-old daugher, daughter, Haneen, after visiting the graves of his parents and a brother who died while he was in jail. "I'm overwhelmed with sadness and memories, but also with longing for my people and my family," he said.
Qatamesh was arrested on Sept. 1, 1992, and charged with possession of a forged identity card and with carrying documents of the Popular Front. In October 1993, after two military courts ruled that he could be released on bail, he was jailed without trial.