Rights groups denounce rise in Gaza death sentences

Victim’s son: We demand execution of criminal who killed our father.

Palestinian members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement seen during a patrol in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on January 26, 2020. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
Palestinian members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement seen during a patrol in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on January 26, 2020.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
On October 8, just two weeks after the crime came to light, the Court of First Instance in the southern Gaza Strip governorate of Khan Younis sentenced a 57-year-old man to death by hanging for having murdered currency broker Ahmad Albasheeti.
The case shocked public opinion in the coastal Palestinian enclave. Thousands quickly took to the streets despite strict anti-coronavirus measures, calling for retribution and the execution of the murderer – which perhaps explains the swift pronouncement of sentence.
According to the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, authorities there have handed down 10 death sentences so far in 2020. This brings the number of capital sentences issued in the Palestinian territories since 1994 to 239, including 189 in the Gaza Strip.
Of these, 90 have been carried out, including 78 in Gaza.
Rights activists and institutions say the increase is alarming. Experts attribute it to the devastating economic, social and political conditions.
“The high crime rates are directly proportional to the [harsh] humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip,” psychologist Fadel Abu Hein told The Media Line.
“Psychologically," Hein said, "crime is a deviant behavior that expresses the anger of the perpetrator about the harsh living and humanitarian conditions he faces.”
With the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics placing the enclave’s poverty rate for 2020 at 53%, and its unemployment rate at 46%, observers believe that, coupled with the catastrophic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, it is just a matter of time before the Gaza Strip reaches a point of social explosion where crime rates further spike.  
Nevertheless, activists are demanding the abolishment of capital punishment in accordance with international human rights law.
Al Mezan deputy director Sameer Zaqout says such sentences are ineffective in preventing or discouraging serious crimes and are a breach of signed commitments.
“As human rights institutions, we are, in principle, against the death penalty, and we are working toward its abolition from Palestinian legislation, especially since the Palestinian accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [in 2014] and the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR [in 2019], which explicitly seeks the abolition of the death penalty,” he told The Media Line.
“Since the State of Palestine has ratified the ICCPR and its Second Optional Protocol, it must commit to abolishing the use of capital punishment and adapt all Palestinian legislation to fit and respect the new commitments,” he said.
Taking the opposite side, the legal adviser and spokesperson for Gaza’s judiciary, Ihab Arafat, argues that the Palestinian legal system “does not prohibit the application of the death penalty, which is at the forefront of the penalties under Article 37 of the Palestinian Penal Code No. 74 of 1936, which is, in turn, still in force and is applicable in Gaza’s courts.”
Arafat explained to The Media Line that the Palestinian legal system “limits the application of death sentences to indictable offenses that disturb civil peace, destabilize society and shake public confidence in state institutions.”
These institutions include the judiciary, legislature and executive.
“The court cannot override the law or circumvent its provisions regarding the application of this punishment against perpetrators of crimes of murder, concerning whom there are convictions,” he stated. “There is no choice but to apply the law.”
The legal adviser insists that all procedural and substantive guarantees are observed under the Palestinian Basic Law and the Penal Procedure Code No. 3 of 2001 so as to ensure a fair trial.
Zaki Albasheeti, son of the murdered currency broker – who was the primary provider for 15 family members – called the death penalty, which had been demanded by his family, “a legitimate and legal request” designed to preserve the rights of victims’ families.
“We demand the execution of the criminal who killed our father,” he exclaimed to The Media Line.
Still, rights activists question the legitimacy of capital punishment due to the absence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s authorization. Since 2005, Abbas has issued no decrees authorizing executions. However, a number of death sentences have been handed down by Palestinian courts in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Zaqout believes that applying the death penalty there “violates national legal standards,” adding: “The death penalty must not be carried out without the president’s authorization. This is an essential condition set for a reason, which is to lengthen the litigation period, because execution is a final and irreversible sentence.”
Commenting on this, Arafat told The Media Line: “There is an independent judicial system in the Gaza Strip and the government provides all the judicial, administrative, technical and logistical human resources to carry out its basic tasks by following up and directing the adjudication of disputes and resolving cases on sound legal foundations.”
Zaqout believes that even those who support capital punishment should ask to freeze its implementation for several reasons, given exceptional circumstances of the Gaza Strip.
“[In Gaza], we are not in a position that enables us to trust the rule of the law. Almost all experts, including the Bar Association and workers in the field of human rights, are unanimous regarding the absence of the rule of the law and the independence of the judiciary. When we live in a [state of] division [between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank], everything is in question, including the formation of the courts,” he said.
“Moreover,” he continued, “the exceptional situation of the Gaza Strip means we lack the requirements for ensuring a fair trial. For instance, there are no forensic laboratories in Gaza that are well-equipped and meet the necessary standards to be qualified to resolve cases with high proficiency.”
Arafat disagrees, saying the enclave’s Justice Ministry has the required resources.
“We have a department called the General Administration of Criminal Evidence and there are experts at a high level who have taken courses in a number of neighboring countries, in addition to [learning from] local experience and courses,” he said.
To ensure that these experts are up to date, “we usually coordinate and communicate with international experts in this field in order to stay informed of the latest developments regarding forensic science and to develop the skills of the Palestinian experts involved in investigative operations and the examination of crime scenes,” Arafat added.
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