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HRW denounces Israeli military court system amid trial of Palestinian activists

July 16, 2017 6:54 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 27, 2017 11:18 A.M.)
Farid al-Atrash, left, and Issa Amro at Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank on March 26, 2017. (HRW)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- International NGO Human Rights Watch has reiterated its condemnation of the Israeli military court system, amid the ongoing trial of two Palestinian human rights defenders facing charges related to their activism.

Issa Amro, founder of the Hebron-based group Youth Against Settlements, and Hebron-based lawyer Farid al-Atrash, who is the head of the southern division of Palestinian statutory watchdog Independent Commission of Human Rights, were both arrested for participating in a peaceful protest in February 2016.

They were later charged with “demonstrating without license,” “entering a closed military zone,” “incitement,” and “obstructing an officer.”

The march in question commemorated the 22 years since extremist American-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim Palestinian worshipers, killing 29 and injuring more than 120 in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994.

The demonstration also called for the reopening of al-Shuhada street, which was shut down soon after the massacre, and called for the removal of discriminatory restrictions on movement placed on Palestinians in the city.

Al-Atrash has vehemently denied charges claiming he attacked Israeli soldiers, with video footage of the arrest showing him standing and holding a poster peacefully in front of Israeli soldiers when he was pushed, dragged, and then violently arrested by a number of soldiers.

“Military trials held by the Israeli army -- a defining feature of the 50-year occupation -- have a near 100-percent conviction rate and fall well short of any standards of justice,” wrote HRW consultant Khuloud Badawi after she attended a trial hearing last Sunday, July 9.

During the hearing, “two soldiers who policed the demonstration offered testimony riddled with inconsistencies and which appeared to offer no evidence to support the government’s allegations about Amro and Atrash’s conduct,” Badawi said.

“Sitting in the courtroom, I couldn’t escape feeling that Amro and al-Atrash were on trial for trying to bring a sense of normalcy back to their city and pushing back against entrenched Israeli discrimination that has dominated their daily life since birth.”

The HRW dispatch deplored the Israeli state for continuing to “prosecute Palestinians on charges related to their peaceful exercise of free expression and shrink the space for human rights defenders to operate.”

Badawi highlighted that “Israeli authorities have engaged in what United Nations experts deemed in 2013 a years-long ‘pattern of harassment,’ including repeated arrests, against Amro, who also currently faces 14 other charges related to his nonviolent activism.”

Youth Against Settlements (YAS) said that during last Sunday’s trial, the soldier and his commander testified that Issa chanted "one, two, three, four, occupation no more," and that this constituted a call to violence. The commander admitted that the language of the chant itself was not problematic, “but that it was part of an atmosphere of violence and that you had to be there to feel that,” the YAS statement said.

YAS also said that the witnesses' testimonies were inconsistent with statements they gave in 2016. “The soldier testified that other protesters, though not including Issa or Farid, threw stones at the soldiers. However, Issa's attorney, Gabby Lasky, introduced a video that directly refuted this claim.”

The military commander also reportedly testified that Israeli soldiers tried to approach Amro to arrest him, but Amro ran away. “However, on the day of Issa's arrest in 2016, the same commander had stated that by the time they had decided to arrest Issa, Issa had already left the area (in compliance with the military order to disperse),” according to YAS.

Lasky, Amro’s lawyer, was quoted in the statement as saying: “After hearing both witnesses, it is clear that the defendants’ right to freedom of speech and freedom of demonstration were infringed by the Israeli army and police. It seems that the indictment and court procedures are the way of the occupation to silence nonviolent demonstrators calling peacefully to open Shuhada Street in Hebron, by criminalizing their acts.”

Meanwhile, Amro said: “It is a kangaroo court system where there is no justice at all. The charges against me are an effort to shut down my human rights work and stop me from speaking up for my people.”

YAS noted that in addition to the HRW staffer, representatives from the US, UK, EU, Germany, Sweden, Amnesty International, and the UN were present at the hearing.

Upcoming court sessions were scheduled for Oct. 22, 24, 29 and Nov. 5.
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