Special investigator dies in Palestinian custody

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Associated Press

Posted on July 16, 2012 at 1:33 PM

Updated Monday, Jul 16 at 3:03 PM

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A senior Palestinian official suspected of embezzling public funds fell to his death from the third-floor kitchen window of a West Bank security compound where he was being interrogated, officials said Monday.

He was involved in tracking land sales to Israelis, considered treasonous by Palestinians.

The official investigating the incident said Osama Mansour jumped, and that there is security camera footage to prove it. Members of Mansour's family said he was cheerful when they visited him last week, and they suspect he was killed.

An autopsy is set for Tuesday at Israel's premier forensics institute, presumed to be independent, relatives said.

Mansour's death is training a spotlight on the murky world of secret West Bank land deals. Israeli settlers routinely try to buy Palestinian-owned land in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to strengthen their hold on territories the Palestinians want for their state.

Those convicted of selling land to Israelis face the death penalty from the Palestinian judiciary. In at least one case, such a sentence was handed down but was not carried out, court officials say. They say at least 141 Palestinians are being held in West Bank prisons for selling land to Israelis.

Palestinian society views such acts as treason because it weakens their quest for an independent state in the occupied lands.

Mansour retired from the intelligence service, and then he was assigned to the attorney general's office in 2009 to investigate land sales, said family members who would not give their full names on advice of their lawyer.

Mansour was arrested more than three weeks ago on suspicion of corruption, said Abdel Latif al-Aidi, an official leading the investigation into Mansour's death.

According to the suspicions, Mansour pocketed money given to him by the Palestinian Authority for sting operations meant to catch land dealers or to buy back properties whenever possible, al-Aidi said.

As a former senior member of the security service, Mansour was being held in a regular room and not in a cell at the Military Intelligence building, said al-Aidi, head of the military judicial system in the West Bank.

On Sunday, Mansour was told his matter would be referred to a special court for corruption cases, al-Aidi said.

"He took a shower, shaved and smoked a cigarette," al-Aidi said. Mansour told the guards he was thirsty and was told to go to the kitchen for a glass of water, the investigator said, adding that the detainee was not handcuffed or accompanied by a guard.

"He went to the kitchen, opened the window and jumped," al-Aidi said. He said a security camera captured the fatal fall, and that the footage would be made public.

Al-Aidi said he did not know how much money Mansour was suspected of embezzling.

However, relatives of Mansour, speaking on condition of anonymity at the advice of the family lawyer, said they doubt he committed suicide. They said he was upbeat when they visited him Friday.

Shahwan Jabareen of the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq said the autopsy must be done in the presence of an independent doctor. "Usually, when someone dies in custody, that raises our suspicions, but we are waiting for the autopsy," he said.

At least five Palestinians, including Mansour, have died in West Bank lockups in the past five years. Human rights groups have accused the Palestinian security forces of mistreatment of detainees under interrogation.

As part of its crackdown on political rival Hamas, the Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank has also become increasingly authoritarian, on occasion attempting to stifle dissent.

Land deals between Palestinians and settler groups in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are usually done in secret because of the danger to the lives of the Palestinians involved.

Scams are commonplace. Sometimes, Palestinians sell land they don't own, or take the money without turning over the property. Other times, settlers falsely claim they've purchased Palestinian land and produce fraudulent documents.

After successful sales, Palestinians often relocate abroad for fear of possible vigilante attacks against them.

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