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Trial of suspected murderers of Palestinian activist postponed for fourteenth time

Jerusalem24 – The trial of the 14 suspects in the case of assassinated political activist Nizar Banat was postponed yesterday until 6 September, to allow the defense to bring in an “international expert.”

This is the fourteenth time a court session has been postponed in the Banat trial, for reasons including the absence, illness, or “prior engagement” of the defense lawyer; the defendants’ refusal to attend; and the failure to prepare adequate transportation for the transfer of the suspects to court.

A total of 29 court sessions have been held since September 2021.

A decision to grant the suspects, who have been held in Jericho prison since July last year, a 12-day leave ahead of their trial yesterday provoked a furore among the Palestinian public.

A protest following the one-year anniversary of the murder of Banat took place on Saturday in central Ramallah. Unlike earlier protests, no arrests or crackdown by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces were recorded on Saturday.

The US administration had issued a plea on 27 June to both Israeli and Palestinian authorities to refrain from engaging in “actions that increase tensions” ahead of President Biden’s visit mid-July.

Who was Nizar Banat?

Nizar Banat was killed on 24 June 2021 while in custody of the PA’s Preventive Security Service (PSS) officers. Banat’s family members described him being beaten with iron rods during his arrest.

42-year-old Banat was an outspoken critic of the PA, calling out cases of corruption and human rights abuses in videos that were widely shared amongst Palestinians on social media. Banat even predicted his own demise at the hands of PA security.

Banat’s murder led to weeks of protests by Palestinians, which were violently repressed by PA security, riot police, and undercover officers. A campaign of arrests took place over several weeks, targeting members of the public present at the protests, politicians, and journalists – including Jerusalem24’s own Mohammad Hamayel.

Governments and NGOs worldwide condemned the killing as well as the ensuing crackdown on peaceful protestors.

A “flawed” military trial

In response to growing internal and external pressure, the government formed a committee headed by Minister of Justice Mohammad Al-Shalaldeh to investigate the killing of Banat, eventually leading to the arrest of 14 members of the PSS on 11 July 2021. They were charged with beating Banat to death, abuse of power, and disobeying military orders.

According to a report by Amnesty International released on 24 June, the 14 officers have not been suspended from active duty from the PSS, despite being detained since July 2021.

“The flawed military trial of 14 low-ranking security officers will not bring about justice,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “There needs to be a civilian trial following international standards, not just a smokescreen to protect those higher up.”

The PSS’ own investigation into the killing of Banat was completed on 6 September and “absolved regional commanders of all responsibility,” according to Amnesty.

“It is essential that the individuals who gave orders to arrest Nizar Banat for no lawful reason, and who oversaw the assault, are also held to account.”

On 18 May 2022, after the trial was postponed for the ninth time, Banat’s family fully withdrew from ongoing court proceedings saying they had lost trust in the military court. They are preparing a case for the civilian courts instead.

The state of human rights in Palestine

A joint report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Lawyers for Justice, submitted on Thursday to the Committee Against Torture in advance of its first review of the State of Palestine in July 2022, notes that over a year after the killing of Banat in PA custody, “the Palestinian Authority continues to arrest and torture critics and opponents.”

“Systematic abuse by the PA and Hamas forms a critical part of the repression of the Palestinian people,” says Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement concerning the publication of the joint report.

The past few weeks have seen an increase in the number of political or “security” detainees arrested by the PA. Lawyers for Justice reported 63 arrests in June, versus 340 for the totality of 2021.

Lawyers for Justice is a Palestinian group founded in 2011, which offers legal services free of charge to political and security detainees. Lawyer Thafer Sai’deh tells Jerusalem24 that the group has been offering these services for years. Each lawyer belonging to the group has their own individual practice, and each provide around 10% of their time to the pro bono representation of Palestinians who have been arrested by the PA on issues such as political opinions or free speech.

In 2021, the Independent Commission Human Rights (ICHR) – the Palestinian statutory watchdog – received 252 complaints of torture and ill-treatment and 279 of arbitrary arrest against PA authorities.

HRW’s Omar Shakir calls on foreign governments and institutions to stop funding the PA’s security forces – a demand Banat made in the weeks before he was killed.

“Many governments say they want to support the rule of law in Palestine and yet year after year continue to fund police forces that actively undermine it,” Shakir says. “Purported concerns over the fragility of Palestinian institutions and other tired excuses should no longer stand in the way.”

“Donor governments should cut ties to abusive Palestinian police and security forces and center their Palestine and Israel policies on human rights.”

In 2019, the Palestinian security sector budget accounted for over NIS 3.4 billion, representing 19.9 percent of the overall PA budget, according to a 2020 report by AMAN.

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