Middle East

Palestinian presidential hopeful under house arrest in U.S.

WASHINGTON: Abdelhaleem al-Ashqar is standing in the Palestinian presidential election on Jan. 9 but he is not allowed to leave his home in the Washington suburbs because he faces trial for racketeering.

The 46-year-old former university professor, who has been in the United States for 15 years, is accused of illegally collecting funds for Hamas.

Ashqar is one of 10 candidates seeking to succeed the late Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11, as head of the Palestinian Authority.

"I'm not allowed to leave my home," Ashqar said. After being charged in August he was released on bail of 2.6 million dollars but his election campaign appears difficult as he does not even have a trial date.

The charges have been made in Chicago but he must stay at his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

"I think my case is a political one. All the evidence introduced in my case as of now was before 1994-95. At that time Hamas was not designated as a terrorist organisation," he said.

"My case is political and the Americans should let me leave and go back to join my people and join their struggle there." Ashqar comes from the West Bank town of Tulkarem and moved to the United States with a U.S. scholarship which enabled him to study for a doctorate in business management at the University of Mississippi.

He is standing in the Palestinian election as an independent and his candidacy has been accepted by the Palestinian central elections commission.

"I'm calling for all Palestinians to participate in the election," he said.

"My platform is national unity, fighting corruption, ending the monopoly of power, real reforms, democratic ones, separation of powers, and protecting our achievements as well as our national rights." Though Ashqar is not among the frontrunners with Mahmoud Abbas, who has replaced Arafat as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, or Marwan Barghouthi, who is jailed in Israel, he remains optimistic about his chances.

He said the main difference with the election favourites is that does not come from within the Palestinian Authority. "I'll be representing the real interests of Palestinians and calling for real reforms. I'll do whatever it takes to win." "I'm hopeful but it is not easy, since I'm not there. I've been outside the territories for 15 years, but the people are familiar with my case." Ashqar said he has been through three hunger strikes in the last six years.

"It was against the way I was treated by the U.S. government. They wanted me to testify against my people. I said I'd rather die than betray my commitment to freedom and justice for Palestine and the Palestinian people."

By Christophe de Roquefeuil, Agence France Presse





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