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Palestinian leader accused of stifling dissent

HUSSAN, West Bank -- Mahmoud Abbas' government in the West Bank is getting tougher with critics, interrogating, prosecuting and even jailing several journalists and bloggers in recent months for allegedly "defaming" the Western-backed Palestinian leader.

Rights activists say the legal hassles are meant to silence dissent and that the campaign is intensifying despite promises to the contrary by Abbas. Targets of the crackdown include supporters of Abbas' political rival -- the Islamic militant Hamas -- and political independents who have written about alleged nepotism and abuse of power in Abbas' Palestinian Authority.

Abbas' aides insist the Palestinian leader opposes any curb on expression. They blame overzealous prosecutors and security officials, but government critics say Abbas could easily halt the clampdown.

"It's a good cop, bad cop routine. The bad cops are the security services, and the good cop is the benevolent president," said Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian Authority insider. They want to send a chilling message, she said, "and it works."

Abbas' foreign backers, who view him as key to delivering any future peace deal with Israel and maintaining quiet in the West Bank, have said little in public about the issue. Instead, during a visit to the West Bank in late March, President Barack Obama showered Abbas and his security forces with praise for their efforts to prevent militant attacks on Israel.

The new tactic of taking journalists and bloggers to court has invited speculation about timing and motive.

Some say Abbas and his inner circle are lashing out at critics because they feel increasingly vulnerable politically. Others suggest the 78-year-old Abbas is either an old-school Arab politician not used to criticism or an out-of-touch leader getting bad advice.

"It's a weak authority and that's why it's doing this," said Shahwan Jabareen, who heads the human rights group Al-Haq. "They fear the criticism is growing -- that they will lose the [Palestinian] authority -- and they are trying to keep it by acting like this."

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