Rights activist accused of involvement in PFLP

Case against activist accused of terrorism off to explosive start; witness denies accusations he made to police against defendant.

AYMAN NASSER 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The trial of well-known human rights activist Ayman Nasser, accused of involvement with the PFLP, got off to an explosive start on Monday in the IDF Military Court of Yehuda, as the IDF prosecution’s first witness took a 180-degree U-turn from his police testimony against Nasser.
Because of the political impact of the case – a human rights activist being accused of terrorism – it has drawn the attention of both the Israeli and international media.
Nasser says he is a human rights activist for Palestinian prisoners’ rights at an organization called Addameer – which was also recently raided, although no charges have as yet been filed – and has committed no crimes.
The IDF indictment against him recognizes that he works as a human rights activist, but says that he doubles as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group, charging him with five counts of being present at PFLP events or actively recruiting for the PFLP.
Nasser and Addameer say the IDF is persecuting him for political reasons, trying to intimidate human rights organizations which publicly criticize the IDF and fight for prisoner rights.
The indictment does not accuse Nasser of involvement in actual terror operations.
It focuses on his alleged presence at PFLP gatherings, including one specific incident in which he is accused of distributing PFLP recruiting materials and paying Is’an Karaja NIS 200 for transportation costs to go recruit new PFLP members.
Nasser says he was present at most of the events mentioned, but that he was there in his capacity as an activist for prisoner rights, that the events were widely attended by Palestinians from the general public, and that whether PFLP agents were there or not, they would have been a small number of the attendees and he had nothing to do with them.
Monday’s drama was apparent from the start.
In statements to police, the first witness, Mahmoud Zeitoun, himself in detention for alleged crimes, had accused a man named Ayman Karaja of being present and involved in various PFLP events.
In one particular event that stood out, it was claimed that Ayman Karaja helped organize an event commemorating deceased PFLP general-secretary Abu Ali Mustafa.
Piecing together different Zeitoun statements, including Zeitoun’s identifying a photograph of Ayman Nasser as the Ayman Karaja he had discussed, the prosecution was offering Zeitoun as a key witness for placing Nasser at the PFLP events.
But when Zeitoun entered the courtroom, there was clear camaraderie between him and Nasser, whereas when the prosecutor began to question him, Zeitoun responded with curt answers.
Eventually, Zeitoun renounced his testimony against Nasser. He admitted that he had said what the transcript of his police interrogation indicated. He admitted that he had signed his name at the end of the transcript, where it read that a signature would confirm the accuracy of the transcript.
But he claimed that he had only named Nasser because the interrogators had essentially questioned him for 40 straight hours without sleep, and promised him he could finally go to sleep if he named Nasser.
Zeitoun said that he only identified the photograph as pertaining to Nasser for the same reason – to finally get to sleep.
The prosecutor was not happy with the curveball thrown at her, but she did appear ready, setting up Zeitoun in order to question him as a “hostile witness.”
A hostile witness is a witness who supposedly was going to testify on behalf of one party, which carries certain limits against aggressive or leading questioning, who once on the stand gives a story that is “hostile” or against the narrative he was expected to testify to.
Once a prosecution’s witness is declared hostile, the prosecutor can question the witness aggressively and with leading questions just as if they were cross-examining a witness for the defense.
The prosecutor then hammered away at Zeitoun, trying to expose holes or any part of his new narrative that might not make sense.
For example, she asked him if he spoke the truth the rest of the time during the interrogation and only made things up to satisfy the police on the specific points that hurt Nasser the most.
This could have made the witness’s answers look too conveniently contrived, but Zeitoun did not take the bait, saying they could check the video footage of his interrogation to see when he was being pressured.
That answer may turn out to be important, as the judge may evaluate Zeitoun’s credibility and which of his accounts to believe based on the video footage.
Defense attorney Hassan jumped on Zeitoun’s answers as an opportunity to defang all of the accusations he had made against Nasser.
Hassan meticulously questioned Zeitoun about each allegation, to get a full denial from him.
He also focused on the photograph, leading Zeitoun to make a number of assertions about it – that there was nothing to indicate that it was taken during the specific alleged PFLP gathering, and that it could have been taken at any West Bank protest.
Based on the hostile first witness and the possibility of the prosecution’s other witnesses, who are also Palestinian, turning “hostile,” the prosecution has a hard case to make, unless it can convince the court that the police statements were the true story, and the testimony in court was fabricated for other motivations.
With many human rights groups and many in the international media watching this case, the stakes could not be much higher.