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Inside Gaza's Ansar prison for women

June 15, 2010 5:56 P.M. (Updated: June 16, 2010 11:57 A.M.)
By Hadeyeh Al-Ghoul

Gaza – Ma'an – "Ethical issues, thefts, crimes, and checks without balance" are some of the charges against the women in the Ansar Central Woman's Prison, officials explained ahead of an unprecedented press visit to the facility.

The move follows an initiative by the Palestinian Authority prison administration in the West Bank, which invited reporters inside government-run facilities to inspect and report on conditions following years of reports of torture and filth.

The visit to the Gaza facility included interviews with eight women, held together in the one-room facility, for various terms and on a variety of crimes.

Samia, 35, was imprisoned on what is termed an "ethical charge," after neighbors accused her of having an illegitimate pregnancy, though she was never pregnant. Explaining the situation, Samia said the crime was adultery, adding that the topic became contentions among her neighbors. She was later accused and imprisoned.

"What I did was haram (forbidden), but it was an evil hour and I didn’t feel it until it was too late," she said. When her father fell ill, she was sent to prison for the "ethical charge," and after 44 days he was released from the hospital and came to visit her.

Refused forgiveness, Samia said her father "refused to allow me any place near him, even though I promised to stay at home after I was released." She said she spent 45 minutes with her father, telling him the charge of illegitimate pregnancy were false, and that tests showed she had not been pregnant and that the charge was based on rumors started by neighbors.

Without the forgiveness from her father, Samia would have nowhere to go if she were released from prison. The Gaza Strip is a series of small communities, where most people know each other and their extended families, so anonymity is impossible, and forgiveness essential.

The concern was central for Samia, and most of the other women in the facility.

Manager of the prison, Colonel Nasser Deeb Suleiman, said the prison held eight to 12 women at any given time, between the ages if 18 and 35. "The rate of crime is low for women," he said, explaining the low number for the only woman's facility in the Gaza Strip, and one of only two prison facilities in general.

The most serious charge, he said, was murder, with one of the inmates charged and convicted for the shooting death of a man.

When women with young children are charged and convicted, Suleiman said, they spend the day at the prison and the nights at home taking care of the infant, "the court takes into consideration the child," he said, adding that depending on the crime, the privilege of leaving the facility could be revoked as the child grows.

Women facing "ethical charges" have a special course of treatment, Suleiman explained, "because we are afraid that when she is released from prison her family will kill her." He said that the court and public prosecution "interfere to solve these kinds of problems and sometimes they detain the woman until male family members interfere and settle forgiveness."

Suleiman said that the de facto government in Gaza was working to build a new, larger prison, after the As-Saraya facility was demolished during an Israeli air strike in the first days of Israel's last war on Gaza in 2008-2009. The new facility will have more than one room for women, he said, and a total capacity of 500, rather than the 300 beds that Ansar has.
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