'88% of prisoners in Palestinian jails being held without trial'
As PA works to restore order in West Bank, many of those arrested are thrown in prison without legal proceedings.
About 18 months ago, a European Union delegation arrived in the Palestinian Authority to evaluate the condition of prisoners in Palestinian prisons. The delegation, which was attached to the European Union Police Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (Eupol Copps) - a group of European security experts who are involved in the restructuring of the Palestinian police force - was given a clear order: to bring about reforms in the Palestinian judiciary.
One of the astounding conclusions of the legal experts from Europe was that 88 percent of all those in jail were being held without trial, a hearing or any sentencing. This one fact brought to the fore the reality of the problems in the field of law that the Palestinian Authority is dealing with. At a time when the Palestinian police force is beginning to show impressive signs of improvement, acting with determination to restore order throughout the West Bank, in great part thanks to a reshuffling of the top posts, those arrested are simply thrown in prison without legal proceedings.
In an effort to amend the situation, the EU group was renamed the rule of law section.
"We are trying to complete the original task of the team which deals with rehabilitating the police force," said Kristoff Luktis, a 44-year old former Austrian judge who was chosen to head the group. He has been involved in similar work in other parts of the world, where violent conflict has been the norm.
He refuses to sound pessimistic when he is asked to describe the situation of the Palestinian legal system.
"Everyone can understand that in terms of law and order one needs more than a police force and we have identified many problems," he said. "For example, it has not been clear what to do with a suspect. Many of the suspects that were arrested were held in prison without a trial. In a year and a half we have succeeded in lowering the numbers and now 'only' 80 percent of those in prison are held without trial. Normal figures are about 50 percent, and in Austria it is 40 percent."
Even before the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the number of European legal experts as part of Eupol Copps was fairly limited, but after Prime Minister Salam Fayyad took over in the Palestinian Authority, the mandate of the group was expanded and the staff was bolstered with legal experts from all over Europe. They are working mostly on legislation in matters of defense of suspects, criminal investigations, regulations for police, etc. However the biggest problem Luktis and his staff face is the sorry state of the courts in the West Bank.
Their ability to legislate new laws or to amend existing ones is very limited in view of the absence of a Palestinian legislature. The parliament has not assembled since June 2007 - when Hamas took over in Gaza - and essentially it is impossible to pass laws.
"We can assist and advise on legislation and even formulate laws, but there is no parliament to receive them," Luktis said. "We are sitting here and hoping that one of these days the legislature will resume function, because in the absence of legislation the path toward becoming effective is very limited. There is a possibility of using presidential edicts, but these are a tool for emergencies only. What can be passed are regulations and bylaws that are helpful in resolving complicated problems. We are now trying to build an entire organizational structure: train legal teams - not only judges but also administration staff. There is also a need for missing equipment and there is still a long way to go."
There are 24 courts functioning in the West Bank and of these 14 are reconciliation courts, which do very basic evaluations of cases; eight are "first instance" courts, which are like district courts; and there is a Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, both in Ramallah. The Supreme Court has a panel of 15 justices.