Analysis

A Stain on the Palestinian Authority's Legal System

It’s not the conviction of Mohammed Dahlan that is disturbing, as much as the process behind it.

Mohammed Dahlan in his Ramallah office in 2006.
Daniel Bar-On

Most Palestinians are convinced that the Palestinian Authority is infested with corruption at all levels of government. Therefore, the fact that Mohammed Dahlan is being accused of stealing public funds wouldn’t strike people as very surprising. But the process by which he was just convicted is so tainted by the political war that Mahmoud Abbas has declared on his former protégé that the public is likely to harbor suspicions about the verdict’s legitimacy.

A public opinion survey published this week found that two-thirds (64 percent) of the public wants Abbas to resign as PA president (72 percent of Gazans and 59 percent of West Bank residents). Abbas’ plummeting popularity and the intensity of his obsession with his rival, Dahlan, make it hard to take this trial seriously.

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The original case against Dahlan was brought to the anti-corruption court two years ago, in December 2014. But in April 2015 the court announced that it could not try him, since his parliamentary immunity must first be lifted by the Palestinian Legislative Council, and not by Abbas.

Within a year, Abbas found the solution: In April of this year, for the first time, judges were appointed to the constitutional court, which is supposed to address fundamental legal issues. All were Fatah men or close associates of Abbas. On November 3, these judges ruled that the president has the authority to cancel the immunity of Palestinian parliament members.

Early this week, it was announced that the immunity of five Palestinian lawmakers, most prominently Dahlan, had been revoked. (Human rights organizations and Palestinian legal scholars had already said that the manner in which the court was established and its decisions regarding immunity contravene Palestinian law). Two days later, with noteworthy speed, Dahlan’s conviction was announced.

The earliest report about Dahlan’s anticipated trial appeared, of all places, on BIRN, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which for years has been following Dahlan’s huge investments – as Abu Dhabi’s representative – in Serbia and Montenegro, and in some grandiose projects that are widely opposed. On December 9, it reported that it received a written statement from Abbas’ office saying the trial would begin on December 14. The site’s editors say they tried unsuccessfully to obtain a response from Dahlan’s French lawyer about the upcoming trial, and were also unable to contact Dahlan directly.

But in Ramallah, news of the trial became widely known only after the conviction — and through the Palestinian lawyer rather than from any official court document. The verdict is theoretical. Dahlan likely won’t return to the West Bank to be arrested. But now it will be the turn of the other Fatah members, whose immunity was removed by Abbas this week. They, too, could soon find themselves on trial. This is a signal to all that the war splitting the governing movement is still going strong, and a warning to anyone planning to take part in the alternative Fatah conference being planned by Dahlan.

Above all, it’s a stain on the Palestinian legal system, whose top forums are being reshaped to act as an operative arm of the president. There is evidence of very long-term planning here. In January 2006, just before the election won by Hamas, radical changes were introduced into the 2003 constitutional court law that annulled the participation of the PLC in appointing judges and the court’s oversight authority for the president’s actions. At the Fatah conference, Abbas pledged his loyalty to the principle of separation of authorities. More empty words by which the public will judge him.