As PA State Security Court Sentences Two to Death, Some Question the Court's Legality

The Palestinian State Security Court this weekend handed down death sentences against two Palestinians convicted of collaborating with Israel. Gaza resident Walid Hamdiyeh was convicted, inter alia, of collaborating with the Shin Bet security service in the killing of five Hamas activists during the first intifada. Khan Yunis resident Amin Halfallah was found guilty of divulging the whereabouts of a Hamas weapons cache.

Both men were also convicted of "weakening the morale and the strength of the resistance." The trials of both men opened and ended within a day. Hamdiyeh was arrested in 1995, while Halfallah has been in custody since 1998.

On the face of it, there is nothing surprising about the two trials: Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000, the State Security Court has tried numerous individuals on charges of collaboration with Israel.

However, since June-July, the Palestinian State Security Court has existed contrary to two laws approved by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in the framework of the political, financial and administrative reforms in the PA. Both laws, which were passed by the Palestinian Legislative Council, make no mention at all of the State Security Court.

Ha'aretz has learned that Khaled Al Kidra, the PA's attorney general, who oversees the court, explicitly told Arafat that the latter's signature on the two laws had in fact stripped the arrests and trials conducted in the framework of the court of their legality. Al Kidra warned Arafat that in the future, the PA leader could be deemed personally responsible for the court's sentences.

Palestinian legal sources say that the families of individuals who are executed will be able to file suits with other Palestinian legal instances against those responsible for the court. Arafat, according to these sources, told Al Kidra that the current situation was a time of emergency and that the establishment of the court was within his authority as PA leader.

Even prior to Arafat's signature on the two laws, Palestinian jurists and human rights activists argued that the court, which was set up in the wake of a presidential order issued by Arafat in February 1995, was illegal as it was not anchored in the law in practice in the territories and served as a way to bypass the regular civilian legal system. The judges in the court are senior Palestinian police officers; the court conducts speedy trials in which the right to a defense is minimal; and convicted persons have no right to appeal. Arafat is empowered to approve or commute death sentences.

The PLC has repeatedly called for abolishing the court; and two months ago, representatives of the donor countries, which are overseeing the implementation of the reform process in the PA, wrote and told Arafat that they expected the court to be disbanded.

On May 29, Arafat signed the Palestinian "basic law," a constitution-like document, which was officially published and took effect on July 7. The document, together with the Palestinian Legislative Authority Law, outlines the various Palestinian legal instances, but makes no mention of the State Security Court. The position of attorney general to the State Security Court does not appear on the list of wages to officials and judges.

A Palestinian attorney told Ha'aretz that it was extremely difficult to take public or legal action against the court in general, and the trial of collaborators in particular. In the reality of daily killings by the Israel Defense Forces, he said, it was difficult to expect people to busy themselves with the manner in which hated collaborators died.

The attorney added that it was difficult to demand legal and proper governmental procedures when the belief on the street was that the entire Palestinian regime was crumbling under the Israeli occupation. It was easy for the civilian authorities to avoid dealing with the complicated cases of individuals suspected of collaboration, he said.

Only the State Security Court, the attorney continued, allowed for neutralizing and getting rid of those who the state wanted to neutralize, without conducting a proper legal procedure that requires presenting evidence and providing the accused with a defense.

Nevertheless, a number of Palestinian human rights organizations are already planning to approach Arafat and request that suspected collaborators be tried in regular courts.