April 13, 1995 in Nation/World

Palestinians Taken Aback At Sentencings Closed Trials For Militants Leave Families In The Dark

New York Times

Abdullah Shalah turned on his radio the other day and heard that his son, Omar, had been sentenced overnight to life imprisonment by a Palestinian tribunal for planning a suicide bombing that killed 21 Israelis in January.

Shalah was jolted. No one from the Palestinian Authority had told him that his jailed son, a mosque preacher and member of the militant group Islamic Holy War, had been accused of a crime, charged and tried, he said.

“Not a word,” he said. “The family wasn’t told to come see him in court, we had no lawyer and we heard it over the radio. A government shouldn’t behave this way. This is not justice.”

The closed-door military proceedings, in which another Islamic Holy War member was sentenced separately to 15 years for training youths for suicide missions, are an important new element in the authority’s latest crackdown on militants. It is the first time that Palestinians have sentenced their own people to jail for violence against Israelis.

The trials and a sweep of arrests come as Israel and the United States press for strong action in response to two suicide bombings on Sunday in the Gaza Strip that killed seven Israeli soldiers and an American college student.

Israeli officials have welcomed the measures. But the style of the two military trials this week, with sentences handed down after unannounced proceedings at night at police headquarters, have raised questions about whether defendants are getting a fair hearing.

After years of complaints in the Gaza Strip about injustice at the hands of Israeli military courts, Palestinians could be heard denouncing what they called summary judgments by their own leadership.

“It’s terrible,” said Raji Sourani, a prominent human rights lawyer in Gaza City who is an outspoken critic of the military courts. “We know how a military court system affects the civilian judiciary. It will snowball, and it leads to the militarization of Palestinian society.”

Nabil Shaath, a senior member of the Palestinian Authority, acknowledged that the trials were problematic but said they were “necessary to protect the national interest.”

The authority’s attorney general, Khaled al-Qidra, asserted that the hearings were held before a tribunal of three officers and that the defendants were represented by lawyers.

The accused were told in advance about the trials, al-Qidra said, although he acknowledged that neither their relatives nor the public had been notified.

Although the Palestinian Authority said the two militants had been tried by a military tribunal known as the Supreme State Security Court, for example, the details were murky.

Shalah and relatives of the second convicted militant, Samir al-Jidi, said the prisoners had mentioned nothing about formal charges or impending trials when their families visited them Friday and had said they expected to be released.

Shalah argued that military trials in the Gaza Strip had been fairer during the years of Israeli occupation. Then families were notified of trial dates, lawyers hired by relatives could see prisoners and sentences could be appealed, he said.

“There is no law here in the Gaza Strip,” said Mohammed Shalah, a brother of the convicted militant. “It all depends on who you know.”

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