Rights group calls on Gaza to end capital punishment

Call comes amid increase in death sentences by military court.

Prison jail generic (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prison jail generic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A military court in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip has sentenced at least four men to death, prompting a Palestinian human rights organization to level harsh criticism against capital punishment.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), a Ramallah-based organization, said that the permanent military court in Gaza had last week sentenced three men to death by firing squad on charges of kidnapping and premeditated murder. Two of the three men were sentenced in absentia, after having fled. A fourth man, 34-year old Mamdouh Al-Attar, was sentenced to death by hanging for "spying for the enemy."
According to ICHR, five judicial executions were carried out in Gaza during 2010, they were the first executions carried out by the Islamist movement since seizing power from Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007.
"We are completely against the death penalty," Randa Sanyora, executive director of ICHR told The Media Line. "The way these people were tried is illegal and they've received no due process."
Sanyora pointed to the short time lapse between the men's arrest and the verdict, depriving them of the possibility to appeal.
"Hamas is trying them based on PLO revolutionary penal code of 1979, which is very strange, since Hamas is not part of the PLO and doesn't recognize it," Sanyora added.
Sanyora admitted that capital punishment existed in the Palestinian penal code, but said President Abbas has placed a moratorium on executions. Under Palestinian Authority law, the President must approve all executions. But Hamas no longer recognizes the legitimacy of Abbas, whose four-year term ended in 2009.
Sanyora said the new indictments were causing panic among inmates awaiting trial in Gaza penitentiaries, fearing death penalties would soon increase in civil courts as well.
Samir Zaqout, field work coordinator for Al-Mezan, a Gaza-based human rights organization, said that in principle, Palestinians had no problem with the death penalty since it is sanctioned by Islam. But politically motivated trials in Gaza were a different story, he said.
"There has been a tangible increase in death penalties in Gaza recently," Zaqout told the Media Line. "But even the PA, when it controlled Gaza, had no problem with capital punishment. Around 70 people were sentenced to death since the PA came into existence, but only 15-16 since Hamas took power in Gaza."
Zaqout said that the December 6 sentencing was politically motivated, since the three men accused of murder had killed an Imam of a Hamas-affiliated mosque.
"The judges here base their rulings on the letter of the law, but there shouldn't be selective judging against Fatah people only," he said.
Bill Van Esveld, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said his organization had received many complaints of confessions produced under torture being used by courts to indict suspects.
"The Gaza Military Court considers confession to be the 'royal piece of evidence'," he told The Media Line. "Detainees often don't get access to their lawyer until the investigation has ended."
Van Esveld said that 2010 was the first year in which death penalties have been carried out since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. He added that such penalties were delivered by civil courts as well as military ones.
"In some cases, civilians were tried in military courts," he said. "The crime of collaboration with Israel is usually tried in a military court whether or not the suspect is a member of the security apparatus, because it is considered a security offense."
Israel’s security services routinely use Palestinians as informants to prevent terrorist attacks or assist in targeted interceptions of militant leaders.
More and more countries have moved to abolish the death penalty in recent years. According to Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of world countries have abolished the penalty in law or practice. At least 95 countries have abolished the penalty completely, 35 have canceled it in practice. Nine countries execute convicts for extraordinary crimes only.
Iran by far leads the list of executions in the Middle East, with more than 388 recorded executions in 2009. Iraq is the leading Arab country with over 120 executions.
In comparison, Egypt, with some 80 million citizens has executed the same number of people in 2009 as did Gaza, a territory of 1.5 million inhabitants, in 2010.