Bassam Al-Sayeh was 47 years old when he died in an Israeli prison on Sunday. His family, rights groups and Palestinian campaigners allege that he died because of maltreatment by the Israeli Prison Service and deliberate medical negligence.
Al-Sayeh was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and was detained while attending his wife’s court hearing on 8 October 2015. He has complained about maltreatment and medical negligence since the start of his detention. Rights groups called for the Israeli occupation authorities to offer him appropriate treatment and medicines, and for international bodies to put pressure on Israel to make sure that this happened.
Commenting on his death, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club (PPC) said that Al-Sayeh’s health deteriorated in the last two months. It also pointed out that he was suffering from heart and lung disease.
On 29 July, Al-Sayeh was moved to Al-Ramleh Prison clinic, which is called “the slaughterhouse” by Palestinian prisoners. As his condition worsened, he was moved to Assaf Harofeh Medical Centre near Tel Aviv on 12 August, where he was pronounced dead.
“The Israeli occupation authorities bear full responsibility for Al-Sayeh’s murder,” said the PPC. Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails, it claimed, are subject to “physical and psychological torture and medical negligence.”
In a detailed chart published on its website, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that as of July this year, there were 5,248 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Al-Sayeh’s case has pushed rights groups to raise the issue of maltreatment and medical negligence affecting many of them, citing frequent complaints from prisoners, lawyers and families.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), “[Al-Sayeh’s death] reflects the extent of punitive measures it [Israel] employs against [prisoners], especially in terms of medical neglect and inadequate treatment provided to at least 150 prisoners with chronic and serious illnesses.”
The Centre pointed out that the 47-year-old was the third Palestinian political prisoner to die in an Israeli prison this year, bringing the total since the start of the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 up to 221. Fares Baroud, 51, died on 6 February after spending 28 years in prison. He was pronounced dead, the PCHR explained, just hours after he was admitted to Israel’s Soroka Hospital. “This raised suspicions of deliberate medical negligence.” Baroud suffered stomach, heart and liver pains prior to his death.
After being arrested on 9 June, Nassar Taqatqah, 31, “died while in solitary confinement” just over a month later, on 16 July. Taqatqah was arrested at his home and remained under investigation until his death. His family confirmed that he did not have any health issues — “he was a healthy young man” — when he was taken prisoner by Israeli occupation forces. Family members believe strongly that he must have taken ill in custody and been denied proper medical care.
Claims of medical negligence are not new. Twelve years ago, a Palestinian political prisoner died in his cell in Israel’s Ma’asiyahu Prison on 25 August 2007 due, it is alleged, to medical negligence. Omar Masalma, 23, from the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested while working illegally in Israel. He was imprisoned alongside political prisoners but his family, thinking that it would be better for him, asked for him to be taken to Ma’asiyahu in order to be dealt with as an ordinary criminal.
Masalma’s cellmate told his family later on that he had suffered from severe stomach pain and asked to be examined by a doctor. His request was denied and he continued suffering until he could not bear the pain. His cellmate and other prisoners started to knock on their cell doors until Masalma was taken for “treatment”; he returned after five minutes with “a pill”.
“He swallowed this pill, fell asleep, and never woke up again,” his family was told. They insisted that he did not have any health problems prior to his detention. Masalma was just 20 days into a 21 month sentence when he died.
Walid Al-Agha from Gaza, who spent 13 years in Israeli prisons and is now an activist for prisoners’ rights, thinks that the pill which was given to Masalma was probably nothing more a painkiller. The Israeli Prison Service, he said, gives painkillers to all prisoners no matter what their ailment is, even if it is something serious like cancer, hypertension or diabetes.
Of course, in several reports and after every such case, the prison service insists that it is offering proper medical care and treatment to all prisoners. The evidence, it claims, is the existence of the clinic in Al-Ramla Prison, the aforementioned “slaughterhouse”.
In all, said Al-Agha, there are around 700 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in need of serious healthcare. He thinks that they will now be expecting to suffer the same fate as Bassam Al-Sayeh and the other victims of what they all insist is Israel’s deliberate policy of maltreatment and medical negligence. This remains a major cause of death among Palestinian prisoners held by the occupation state.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.