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Whistleblowers in Palestine face prosecution, isolation and ostracisation 

Marwa Farah [ARIJ Network/YouTube]
Marwa Farah [ARIJ Network/YouTube]

Two years have passed since Marwa Farah's life turned upside down because she blew the whistle. In February 2021, she was fired from her job at the Supreme Constitutional Court despite a protection order she obtained in January 2020. According to Marwa: "The protection order ruined my professional and personal reputation; I was dismissed from my job, and I am still jobless. The implementation of the order transformed me from a person who spoke out against corruption to a suspect who has a security file!"

On 7 October, 2019, the Palestinian Authority (PA) ratified the regulation on the protection of whistleblowers, witnesses, informants and experts in corruption cases, as well as their relatives and associated persons. This regulation is based on the provisions of the Basic Law of 2003 and the Anti-Corruption Law No. 1 of 2005.

Information on the novel whistleblower protection regulation in Palestine is scarce and difficult to obtain. Moreover, the topic is sensitive, and many whistleblowers are reluctant to discuss their situations. Over the past three months, the investigator communicated with eight people about their cases and followed up on four of them. In all cases, the whistleblowers' right to protection was violated.

The complainant becomes the defendant

On 26 December, 2019, Marwa reported a suspected instance of corruption at the Supreme Constitutional Court to the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission. She requested professional and personal protection as she was afraid of being transferred from her workplace. She also wanted to make sure that no one would tamper with the papers and files that confirm the validity of her complaint. Marwa was the court's secretary-general's office director, and this office usually contains a large part of the archived material she used in her whistleblowing report.

On the morning of 29 December, 2019, Marwa went back to the Anti-Corruption Commission to confirm her report and then proceeded to her office. She says: "The Constitutional Court was in a state of chaos upon my arrival. An employee from the technology department was tampering with my computer. At the end of that day, the head of the Constitutional Court issued the decision to relieve me of my duties as director of the secretary-general's office."

The following day, the head of the Constitutional Court issued an order to transfer Marwa to a new position at the court registry office, without assigning her any tasks. He also convened an investigation committee that accused Marwa of violating the professional codes of conduct and the ethics of holding a public office by leaking documents to external parties.

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Bilal Al-Barghouti is the legal advisor to E'tilaf, or the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity in Aman, and a member of Transparency International. He explains that forming investigation committees to deal with an employee suspicious of malpractices within the organisation is illegal, since this amounts to prosecuting the person reporting the crime.

Marwa later obtained a protection order, and as she tried to proceed with work as normal, she discovered that she was not assigned any tasks. "I would sit in the court, shunned by other employees, and no one would communicate with me," she recounts.

This investigation has reviewed all annual and quarterly reports issued by the Anti-Corruption Commission from 2017 until the second quarter of 2021. It notes that 23 protection orders were granted out of 66 filed since this regulation was endorsed in November 2019, until the second quarter of 2021.

Note: Complaints and reports from each year are calculated independently from those rolled over from the previous year.

Distribution of complaints and reports by corruption types

2017

2018

2019

2020

The first quarter of 2021

The second quarter of 2021

The complaint:

Bribery

Embezzlement

Forgery

Profiting from a civil service position

Breach of trust

Neglecting to perform the duties of the job

Money laundering

Illegal profiteering

Trading in currency

Abuse of authority

Nepotism and favouritism

Not disclosing conflicts of interest

Obstruction of justice

Misappropriation of public funds

Incompetence

Refusal to implement a judicial decision

Al-Barghouti explains that the United Nations (UN) Convention is the most important international anti-corruption agreement that Palestine formally adopted in 2014. He adds that the convention stresses the importance of protecting whistleblowers, witnesses and experts. It also provides the means and tools that member states should grant. Additionally, it encourages whistleblowers and urges that they be rewarded.

The regional advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at Transparency International, Hattar, confirms that most Arab countries, including Palestine, have ratified the UN Convention. This means that the state must take appropriate measures to amend its national legislation.

'The bearer of the whistle is merely required to blow it'

As Marwa struggled throughout her own whistleblowing journey, Amira Shihadeh was experiencing a similar fate. Her story began on 7 September, 2020, when she decided to testify about financial and administrative corruption within the village council of Urif in Nablus, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Local Government. She had been working as an accountant there for nine years.

A citizen in the village, she submitted a complaint to the Anti-Corruption Commission about violations in a tender for a waste collection project. The commission asked Amira to testify in the case. Indeed, she gave her testimony. Amira says: "There was a suspicion of manipulation in the tender procedure, as the tender was awarded to a relative of the council's president for a higher price." Amira objected to this bid from the start. Amira's role was to simply testify, as the Anti-Corruption Commission learned about the issue through an anonymous complaint.

Amira's testimony was confidential, and she provided evidence that proved her testimony's validity. Shortly after, she started noticing a car that would follow her home and began to receive threatening calls.

Amira wondered how the village council knew of her testimony since the meeting was confidential: "I called the Anti-Corruption Commission and told them what was happening. They advised me to request a protection order to stop the pressure I was facing."

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Amira got the protection order two weeks after lodging her request. She remained committed to her job despite the pressure she was facing. Next, she was surprised by the decision to stop her from undertaking accounting work within the council, and she was asked to appear before an internal investigation committee.

The head of the unit for protecting witnesses, whistleblowers and experts at the commission, Wala'a Abdullah, explains: "The commission must feel that there is a great possibility that protection would be needed. If the binding conditions for the protection decision are met, the person filing the case must sign a pledge that commits him/her to certain obligations, which vary from case to case."

Researcher on constitutional law, Muhammad Khader, believes that the conditions signed by whistleblowers to ensure their protection are usually improvised. This regulation aims to reassure and protect whistleblowers, but the conditions lead to intimidating and terrorising them instead.

According to Al-Barghouti: "The bearer of the whistle is merely required to blow it; otherwise, it turns into a burden for the reporter. These conditions terrorise the whistleblower and apply pressure on him/her." Al-Barghouti emphasises the need to encourage fighting corruption and the provision of protection instead of imposing conditions or pledges on whistleblowers.

In just one year, Amira became a victim of the weak application of personal and professional protection regimes and was dismissed from her position in 2021, on the same day she testified against the council in 2020. Amira shares her view: "I lost my job because I told the truth, and I was punished for it. Never again would I trust government agencies and organisations; if I had personally protected myself, I wouldn't be in this state now."

Neglect and indifference

Yassir Khatatbeh has been trying hard to deal with the impact of his decision to blow the whistle four years ago. Yassir, a businessperson from the village of Beit Furik in Nablus, lives with his family and earns his living the hard way. He is known for telling the truth. In July 2017, Yassir decided to blow the whistle when he suspected that there was corruption in the Beit Furik local council regarding deals supplying water to the village.

Yassir insisted on filing the complaint with the Anti-Corruption Commission and continuously followed up with them. He also took his complaint to the Bureau of Financial and Administrative Oversight, the Ministry of Local Government and the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers. He says: "Over time, I felt that the complaint did not matter to them and that they were not interested in taking any steps to stop it. They stopped answering my calls, and they would postpone or cancel my visits every time."

No action was taken regarding Yassir's report until the beginning of 2018, starting with a series of legal proceedings lodged against him. This has impacted his work and social life, and even continues after this investigation has been published.

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Yassir did not know about the whistleblower and witness protection regulation because his complaint was filed before this regulation was ratified in 2019. Defamation, slander and libel cases were filed against Yassir, and he was imprisoned several times in connection with the cases. He says: "I am still awaiting to be informed about the protection regulation that I had no knowledge of." Yassir decided to seek protection. However, to date, he has not received a response and still appears before the courts and the judicial system. "The failure to activate the protection law for me as a citizen who reported incidents of corruption has caused endless problems. People are afraid to talk to me, and my work and business have been impacted," he expresses.

Head of the unit for protecting witnesses, whistleblowers and experts at the commission, Abdullah, notes that the commission cannot offer help in cases of defamation and slander because the law must take its course. Since Yassir's file was referred to the judicial system, protection was not provided. Article 11 of the Whistleblower Protection Law No. 7 of 2019 stipulates: "The commission provides legal protection for those seeking it from criminal prosecution as a result of reporting a crime of corruption or due to testifying in such cases." This shows that the commission has the authority to prevent the criminal prosecution of whistleblowers.

Regional advisor at Transparency International Hattar clarifies that most Arab countries have ratified the UN Convention against Corruption. Its implementation, however, depends on the institutional capacity within each state and the principle of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. It also depends on the existence of a legislative oversight body that monitors the executive authority's performance. This is in addition to the presence of independent institutions within the state, such as anti-corruption bodies or watchdogs that are able to work effectively without political interference. The efficiency of such bodies usually guarantees the protection of whistleblowers.

Conditional protection

Yassir was not the only one who had to appear before the judicial system because of defamation and slander cases; Muhammad Dweikat fought the same battle. Muhammad says that he was dismissed from the municipality of the city of Nablus because he objected to administrative and financial malpractices and violations in 2019.

Muhammad noticed "unreasonable" practices during the year he spent as an elected member of the municipal council. He confronted his fellow members with their mistakes, but nothing changed. He filed complaints to several entities until he was dismissed from the council.

'They decided to fire me even though I was elected by the people'

Muhammad took the matter to the Anti-Corruption Commission and filed a complaint. When he was notified of the first complaint filed by a council member against him on charges of defamation and slander, he requested legal protection.

On 10 August, 2021, Muhammad was notified that he had been denied protection. The commission justified its decision by stating that upon examining the request, it was: "Revealed that the criteria for requesting protection had not been met."

To provide protection, several conditions need to be met: one is that the whistleblower shows "good faith", and that the application process is not done in order to "take advantage of any disputes or problems the applicant (already) has." There should also be a: "Causality between the danger, the protection requested from it and the report that was submitted to the commission." Abdullah says: "Certain criteria have to be met, including the assumption of good faith and causation. Protection is denied when these conditions are not fulfilled."

According to researcher on constitutional law, Khader: "The whistleblower is not a detective and is not required to provide evidence. This does not mean that evidence must be provided in order to report a suspicion of corruption. If that were the case, we would not have anonymous reporting in some cases."

Hattar asserts that protecting whistleblowers is the responsibility of the state, and no conditions should be met prior to providing the necessary protection: "Providing protection incentivises people to report corruption. In all cases, personal protection is the responsibility of the state."

Note: Even though all applications in the second quarter of 2021 were rejected, the commission granted precautionary protection to one request.

Muhammad was arrested, detained and interrogated in August 2021. He was released, but a series of prosecution cases are still pending against him. He says he is paying the price for reporting corruption.

Legal advisor Al-Barghouti says that the protection regulation issued in 2019 was a primary requirement for the Aman coalition, but unfortunately: "To date, there has not been an actual or serious application of the regulation." Khader explains that the regulation has to be activated rather than modified. Additionally, the competent authorities should assume their responsibilities and duties in order to enforce the protection orders.

Abdullah says that the regulation on protecting whistleblowers and witnesses is a new development approved under the Anti-Corruption Law. This means that instructions supporting the implementation of the regulation must be issued. Unfortunately, to date, there have not been any instructions or laws in place that govern the protection regulation or the unit's work for protecting whistleblowers and witnesses.

Two years ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a speech during the opening ceremony of the first international conference organised by the Anti-Corruption Commission. A video of his speech was circulated on social media sites. The instructions were clear: "We have seriously decided to fight corruption. Receiving any message from anyone about corruption should be enough to follow up on it from A to Z.  Do not let the fear of reproach by people distract you from doing your duty towards God: investigating the case must follow its course and reach the public prosecutor and later the courts. Come what may: We do not want corruption here!"

Marwa Farah

The protection order

"On 29 December, 2019, I had a strong urge to report my suspicion about some corrupt practices. I went to the Anti-Corruption Commission, and I filed the report and requested protection at the same time. I included a statement that I needed protection badly because the situation was dangerous due to my sensitive employment position I hold at the Constitutional Court. I was serving as the director of the secretary-general's office at the court.  My identity was revealed as I was filing the corruption report, and by the time I arrived at the Constitutional Court, I realised that my identity had been disclosed and that there was a lot of chaos at the court. On that same day, the head of the court issued an order to relieve me of my duties at the secretary-general's office. The next day, that is on 30 December, 2019, an investigation committee was formed. I would go to work every day without having any tasks assigned to me because the head of the court has decided so. To a certain extent, I was shunned by the employees: No one would talk to me or communicate with me. I spent a long time in the registry department until a decision was taken to terminate my employment around June 2020."

The dismissal decision

"How was the protection order implemented? The protection order led to my dismissal from my position, and I am unable to find work now because I turned into a suspect who has a file with a security breach history. Therefore, many institutions are refusing to hire me. The great irony is that during the sixteen years I worked in the public sector, I was one of the most competent and distinguished employees whose integrity was exemplary. I was carrying out my duties in one of the most confidential and sensitive positions due to my competence, honesty and integrity. I was fired from my position, and my salary was stopped. I became under suspicion, and people were afraid to deal with me."

Amira Shihadeh

"One of the villagers lodged a complaint against the council regarding a tender offer for a waste management project. The tender was manipulated and there was something suspicious about it, and I objected to it from the start. A group of villagers, basically the other bidders, filed a complaint about it. I presented my testimony at the Anti-Corruption Commission: It was not a decision; it was rather my simple duty to do that. It was confidential, and only two other people from the commission were present along with me. They advised me to request protection to stop the pressure and aggressions that could target me, so I asked for protection. They granted it to me after around two weeks. After that I did not benefit from it at all; it worked against me. I remained committed to my job until the last minute despite all the pressures. On 25 April and after many investigations and a lot of pressure, they suspended me from work at the Urif village council. After my suspension from work, they asked me to work in the storage department to carry out duties that are not within my area of expertise. This harmed me psychologically, and health trouble started as a result of the pressure I suffered from. She said I could write an official letter to stay home until the investigation and procedures were over. In the end, there were several investigation committees with the same questions, and they issued the same decisions. They would repeat the same process just to apply pressure, and it was humiliating. After a while, they told me that I had been fired from my job. I discovered that they had been holding sessions and issuing decisions in absentia, and I lost my job, my kids and my home just because I told the truth. I was punished because I told the truth. When they offer you protection, you do not feel safe at all. You have to protect yourself by yourself. In my experience, if people want to fight corruption, they should do that on their own, on the ground, without the mediation of institutions or people."

Yassir Khatatbeh 

"The idea to report corruption came to me the minute I realised that there is suspicion of corruption in one of the state institutions. It involved giant sums of money in return for signing illegal agreements. The first arrest came a year after that in November 2020, based on the case filed by the municipality claiming that I was ruining its reputation by circulating false information about it and that I had no right to do that. I proved in court that the information was faulty. After this arrest, I realised that it is important to report the matter to the Anti-Corruption Commission as I had heard that the idea of protecting whistleblowers exists for people who file complaints there. I paid them a visit. When I filed the request, the person started asking me questions as though I were under investigation. They did not reassure me or tell me not to be scared or that I would be protected as a whistleblower. On the contrary, he was telling me it was too much trouble and advised me not to spread the news or say anything about it. He also asked why I used my real name in filing the report.

Even after I filed the request, I did not obtain confirmation that I was protected by the law on witnesses who blow the whistle on corruption. The municipality dropped the case against me even though the Anti-corruption Commission did not activate the law on witnesses and whistleblowers or intervene on my behalf as a reporter of corruption who deserves protection. The proof of that is that even now I am still under fighting a legal case filed by the municipality of Beit Furik. Even after the case was dropped, I am still considered an offender despite the fact that I broke no laws. The case inherently demonstrates that I have not violated any laws, but I remain at the mercy of the public rights issue. Not activating the law on whistleblowers in my case as a citizen who reported corruption led to endless problems. For example, people on the streets are afraid to talk to me, and my friends on Facebook are afraid of commenting on any of my posts. They avoid interacting with me because I might get them into trouble."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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