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Palestinian Interior Minister Hani al-Hassan said Tuesday that "the Palestinian State Security Court no longer exists." Al-Hassan made the declaration at a Ramallah conference on human rights that was held to mark the release of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights' (PCHR) eighth annual report on the state of human rights in the territories.

Al-Hassan also said that recently he had issued a special order restricting the jurisdiction of military courts to Palestinian security personnel and stipulating that civilians be tried by non-military Palestinian tribunals.

Regarding the State Security Court, al-Hassan emphasized that "from the outset, the establishment of this court was not legal."

The minister's statement came in response to opening remarks made by PCHR representative Mamduh al-Akar, who argued that the very existence of the court constitutes a blatant violation of human rights and Palestinian law. He noted that the human rights organization has continually called for the court's abolition.

Al-Akar said he told Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat last year that it was shameful that "the only one in the world who praised the activities of the court was former American vice-president Al Gore." According to al-Akar, Arafat asked him at the time to present him with a full report on the court's legal aspects.

Al-Akar said he was happy and surprised to hear al-Hassan declare that the court is a thing of the past, adding that he is still skeptical. He said that when he handed Arafat the annual PCHR report on human rights two weeks ago, the PA leader seemed more convinced than ever it was essential for the State Security Court to continue to operate.

The court was established through a special edict issued by Arafat in 1995. In its formative years, it was used mostly to win swift convictions of Islamic activists on charges of "harming state security."

The court's jurisdiction was later expanded to pursue legal action against merchants on various charges. When the intifada erupted in September 2000, Palestinians suspected of cooperating with Israel also stood trial in the court.

State Security Court judges are senior officers in the Palestinian police, and the rights of defendants are minimal. Individuals convicted by the court have no right to appeal their sentence; only Arafat has the authority to review, reject or revise the sentences. The judges' decisions are based sometimes on Egyptian law and sometimes on the Palestinian Liberation Organization's revolutionary law.

When the State Security Court was established, Palestinian jurists immediately recognized that one of Arafat's main tools was to bypass the rule of law and deliberately weaken judicial authority. The court was viewed as a tool designed to satisfy Israeli and American demands to "fight against terror."

The Palestinian Legislative Council has also called for abolishing the State Security Court. The council emphasized this demand last year when Arafat promised to implement comprehensive reforms in the PA. The laws Arafat signed as part of this reform make no mention of the court, thus further highlighting the fact that it has no legal basis.

Representatives of the European Union have also repeatedly called for the PA to abolish the State Security Court.