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Palestinian girl locked in cellar for being disabled

Ashamed father kept her in underground cellar for 20 yrs

A charity in the West Bank offered shelter on Wednesday to a mentally handicapped Palestinian woman whose father had made her live for most of the past 20 years in a room under his house.

Police found Nawal al-Masalmeh and her brother Bassam, who suffers similar disabilities, in an unlit and unventilated cellar on Tuesday during a raid aimed at suspected arms and drug dealers in the village of Beit Awa near the city of Hebron.

The father, Ibrahim al-Masalmeh, 63, denied any wrongdoing and said he kept his adult children underground to save them from being harassed and abused by people in the village.

Palestinian police had said on Tuesday that Masalmeh told them he hid his children in the cellar because he was ashamed of them and did not want people to laugh at him.

The children's mother died years ago and their father remarried. He has two children from his second marriage.

The case has highlighted shortcomings in mental health care in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.

The mental health charity which offered shelter to Nawal said both siblings, aged in their late 30s, had been in its care for two months in 2001. But they had been sent home to their father because staff at the center could not cope with them.

Mohammad Misk, head of the charity centre in Hebron, said he would now let Nawal return because her father appeared to have neglected her. But he said Bassam needed more specialized care, which his institution could not provide.