Campaigners welcomed news of the release of Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak after three years in an Israeli jail, but vowed to continue working for an end to the system of detention under which he and hundreds of others have been detained without charge or trial.
Twenty-five year old Sarsak lost a third of his body weight during a three month hunger strike in protest at his incarceration since July 2009 under Israel’s ‘Unlawful Combatants Law’, which is illegal under international law.
Relatives gathered at the Palestinian side of the Israeli Erez crossing in northern Gaza on Tuesday to welcome the freed prisoner who was then transferred to Shifa hospital in Gaza City for medical attention. ”I thank God and all the athletes of the world,” Sarsak told Reuters between sips from a bottle of water.
FIFPro, the international federation of professional footballers, welcomed Sarsak’s release but made clear that no other Palestinian footballers should have to go through what he had experienced. ‘We, FIFPro, refer to the fact that all professional footballers in the world must have equal rights, including the right to freedom of movement, which is a universal right of every citizen. That also applies to all professional footballers in and from Palestine.’ said FIFPro secretary general Theo van Seggelen.
While Sarsak was still on hunger strike in June the president of the Palestinian Football Association, Jabril Rajoub, wrote to UEFA president Michel Platini reminding him that Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Mohammed Nimr are also being held by Israel without charge.
“For athletes in Palestine, there is no real freedom of movement and the risks of being detained or even killed are always looming before their eyes,” Rajoub said.
He said the Israeli government was in “direct violation of FIFA regulations and the International Olympic charter” and said: “we ask Your Excellency to not give Israel the honour to host the next UEFA Under-21 Championship 2013.”
Rajoub’s request reiterated a plea sent to Platini a year earlier by 42 Palestinian football clubs based in Gaza, the besieged Palestinian territory close to the Egyptian border which is home to many of Palestine’s best players. Platini ignored the appeal from the clubs and rejected Rajoub’s.
”We cannot understand why UEFA ignores the other footballers still detained byIsrael and the racism and human rights abuses that have a daily impact on every area of Palestinian life, including sport,” said Geoffrey Lee, coordinator of the Red Card Israeli Apartheid campaign. “Israel does not deserve to host next year’s 2013 European Under-21 championship and we urge everyone who cares about fairness in sport to sign our petition calling on Platini to move the competition to another country.”
Film maker Ken Loach, who endorsed last year’s Palestinian call for Israel to be stripped of hosting the 2013 under 21s and has backed the campaign petition, said the international pressure that had won Sarsak his freedom now needed to be applied in support of “all the other Palestinians detained illegally in Israeli prisons.”