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Israelis release Palestinian ex-footballer imprisoned without charge

By Kareem Khadder, CNN
July 10, 2012 -- Updated 1829 GMT (0229 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mahmoud Sarsak was arrested in 2009, accused of belonging to the Islamic Jihad militant group
  • Sarsak, who eventually went on a 90-day hunger strike in prison, denies belonging to the group
  • He was protesting a policy that allows Israeli authorities to detain Palestinians indefinitely
  • On Tuesday, Sarsak returned to his Gaza Strip home to a hero's welcome

(CNN) -- Thousands in Gaza welcomed Mahmoud Sarsak's release from an Israeli prison hospital Tuesday after the former Palestinian national footballer was imprisoned for three years without charge, officials said.

Sarsak, 25, a native of the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, was arrested in July 2009 when he was on his way to join the Balata football team in the West Bank.

Upon his arrival in Gaza on Tuesday, family members and thousands of other Palestinians gave him a national hero's welcome. And in his hometown, masked gunmen fired their rifles into the air to celebrate.

There were tears of joy as Sarsak reunited with family members, who hadn't seen him in three years and were worried about his deteriorating health while he was on a hunger strike in prison.

Israeli authorities arrested him on suspicion that he belonged to the militant group Islamic Jihad, which Sarsak denies. Israeli prison authority spokeswomen told CNN that he was released at noon at the Erez Crossing, between Gaza and Israel, but they did not give further details.

Sarsak was on a hunger strike for more than 90 days, protesting Israel's controversial "illegal combatant" policy, which allows Israeli authorities to detain Palestinians indefinitely. The international community has condemned the policy, which is also known as administrative detention.

"My objective was clear, since the beginning of my hunger strike, that I will not end my hunger strike, even if that cost me my life," Sarsak told journalists at his home in Rafah, adding: "I will show the world and blast the Israeli entity in front of the world and prove that I am a Palestinian footballer and was representing my country on the international level and will raise the Palestinian flag."

"I deny all the charges I am accused of. I am a sports person, I am a free footballer, I play for peace and the whole world, and I play for lifting the injustice of the Palestinian people."

Human rights lawyer Sahar Francis says he contests the detention policy imposed on Sarsak and on other prisoners still on hunger strikes. He considered Sarsak's release a victory but said that Israel still uses the detention policy on others.

"On a personal level, this is a victory for Mahmoud because he was held for three years under what is called the illegal combatant law. ... After exhausting all the legal procedures that did not work for three years, he succeeded in guaranteeing his release by using his hunger strike," he said.

"On the legal point, I am not sure how it will be for the future, because ... we cannot say that Israel is restricting the use of administrative detention or the illegal combatant law ... because Israel continues expanding administrative detention to existing detainees."

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