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GAZA - The Hamas government is planning to send Gaza's High Court of Justice the petitions of families calling on the government to impose death sentences on people convicted of murdering their kin or of being accessories to their murder.

Last Tuesday's government decision to approach the court circumvents the legal authority of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign the death warrants. In sending the matter to the court, the Gaza government also frees itself of immediate pressure from the families.

A Gaza government official said the victims' families have been applying serious pressure on the system, sending the government complaints about the delay in carrying out the executions. There is a lot of public support for the death sentence, which some regard as a better alternative to blood vengeance carried out by the victims' families. However, human rights groups and left-wing parties in the Palestine Liberation Organization oppose capital punishment.

The recent government decision applies directly to four prisoners in Gaza, who were convicted of raping and murdering a girl; two appeals courts have already approved the death sentence that was handed down on them in 2004. Other Palestinians on death row include two security officials convicted by a Gaza military tribunal this year - one for collaborating with Israel, the other for murdering his colleague. But both are still allowed to appeal their sentences, a process that can take several years, before Abbas is due to sign the death warrant.

Altogether, 26 prisoners that have been sentenced to death over the last few years are living in Gaza, although only nine of them are imprisoned. In June 2007, at the height of violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza, prisoners fled the jails. Some have since given themselves up, primarily out of a fear for revenge. Only a few have been recaptured.

In the West Bank, five people were sentenced to death this year. Four of them were convicted of treason and collaborating with Israel's security forces. Since the Palestinian Authority's establishment in 1994, Palestinian civil or military courts in the West Bank and Gaza have handed down a total of 68 death sentences. Most of them were imposed by the State Security Court, which Yasser Arafat established, though its existence and methods of operation contravene both Palestinian and international law. The court's activity has been suspended over the past several years.

Of the 68 Palestinians sentenced to death, 12 have been executed so far; the last execution took place in 2005. Over the last few years, Arafat and later Abbas have avoided signing death warrants.