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Palestinian Lawyers Protest Against Abbas’ Rule by Decree
Palestinian lawyers demonstrate in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 25, 2022, to protest the issuing of laws by presidential decree. (Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images)

Palestinian Lawyers Protest Against Abbas’ Rule by Decree

One such executive order established a Constitutional Court that analysts say paves the way to eliminate any political opposition

Under heavy security, hundreds of members of the Palestinian Bar Association demonstrated outside the prime minister’s compound in Ramallah on Monday.

Anticipating a large crowd in solidarity with the protesters, Palestinian Authority security forces blocked roads leading to the compound, in an effort to prevent the attorneys from reaching the cabinet headquarters.

Palestinian lawyers earlier in the month declined to attend court proceedings, in compliance with the Bar Association’s decision to strike and escalate measures against the enforcement of laws issued by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The lawyers say Abbas’ executive orders are unconstitutional and carry a risk to justice and citizens’ dignity.

The president of the Bar Association, Suhail Ashour, told Media Line, “We are continuing our protest activities and no decision related to the justice sector should pass without our advice. The High Judicial Council should be aware that the Bar Association exists, and its role should not be abolished in any way.”

Palestinian Bar Association is one of the most powerful professional unions in the Palestinian territories, and it prides itself on being independent.

The High Judicial Council represents the Palestinian judicial authority. It nominates judges for approval by the PA president and supervises the judiciary system.

Since the Palestinian division between the West Bank and Gaza that began in 2007, the Palestinian president has relied on Article 43 of the PA’s Basic Law – the proposed constitution of a future Palestinian state − to issue decisions that have the force of law.

Donning their traditional black robes, the lawyers carried Palestinian flags and signs calling for the suspension of several executive orders signed by Abbas.

One sign read, “Yes to an elected Legislative Council, no to executive decisions,” while another said, “General elections are a mandatory gateway to constitutional life,” in reference to the Palestinian Legislative Council that has been inactive since it was ordered suspended in 2007.

“Speeding up the trial process shouldn’t be at the expense of a fair trial,” read another sign, while another lawyer held one declaring, “The Bar Association will remain the protective shield of the legal system.”

The demands of the Bar are clear and explicit. These decisions must be suspended until they are subjected to a societal discussion by specialized technical committees to amend them in line with the public interest, the rights of the Palestinian citizen, and the national interest.

Abbas quietly established a Constitutional Court through a presidential decree in April 2016 that analysts say concentrates more power in his hands and paves the way to eliminate any political opposition to him or his successor.

“The demands of the Bar are clear and explicit. These decisions must be suspended until they are subjected to a societal discussion by specialized technical committees to amend them in line with the public interest, the rights of the Palestinian citizen, and the national interest,” says Ashour.

In December 2018, the Constitutional Court in Ramallah decided to dissolve the Legislative Council elected in 2006.

“The absence of the Legislative Council opened the door to amendments to legislation and laws without sufficient oversight,” says Ashour.

Executive decisions by Abbas decried by the Bar Association include those it calls “dangerous amendments related to extending the detention of the accused during interrogation without their presence before the court,” despite the law stipulating that they should appear in court.

Unfortunately, these decisions are issued approximately once a week, while we are supposed to have a legislative council in which there is a first reading and a second reading and discussion of matters

Attorney Sherine Sha’arawy described the executive decisions as “a flagrant violation of public rights and freedoms and the rule of law.”

“Unfortunately, these decisions are issued approximately once a week, while we are supposed to have a legislative council in which there is a first reading and a second reading and discussion of matters.”

Sha’arawy added that concern for the rights of Palestinians is the main reason they demand an immediate suspension of all the amendments and executive orders signed by Abbas.

“We are also here because of the citizens. Unfortunately, there are some decisions that are against the interest of the citizen and the public interest.”

We join our voice with that of the Bar Association in order to abolish all laws and decisions affecting human rights, especially the objects of objection by the Bar Association

Human rights activist and attorney Farid al-Atrash told The Media Line he supports the demands of his fellow lawyers.

“We join our voice with that of the Bar Association in order to abolish all laws and decisions affecting human rights, especially the objects of objection by the Bar Association, and we are here to convey our voice to all decision-makers in this country to listen to the demands of the Bar Association and to meet with them.”

Atrash says these amendments “must be canceled because they affect the guarantees of a fair trial, and there are articles that harm the accused, the litigants and the lawyers, and also harm the civil peace and open the way for citizens to resort to force, obtaining their rights by taking the law into their own hands instead of resorting to the judiciary.”

Ashour explains the “many problems” present in the implementation of laws as well, for example, the possibility of buyers denying having signed commercial documents such as checks and bills of exchange.

“The reason we are rejecting a set of decisions regarding laws relates to the implementation laws, civil trial procedures, and criminal procedures. These decisions negatively affect civil peace and economic security and affect rights and freedoms.”

Ashour says that one of the amendments doesn’t mandate that detainees appear in court, a critical stage for detainees, especially if they are being interrogated.

He underlined the importance of a defendant’s presence before the judge during remand extension hearings, because the judge monitors the integrity of the procedures, as well as the defendant’s “safety from being subjected to torture, abuse or harsh punishment.”

Observers say the executive order in question “essentially paves the way for security detainees to be held indefinitely without a legal basis.”

Ashour explains that the amendment makes it easier not to bring the accused before a judge under various pretexts. “If the detainee was subjected to torture or shows signs of torture, the amended texts can be invoked, and the detainee won’t appear in court.”

The lawyers’ protest also condemned a decision putting the burden of proof on merchants who accept endorsed commercial checks as payment, so that if a check bounces, they have to prove it was given to them by the person they claim.

Giving the presenter of the check the opportunity to deny his signature forces the merchant into a lengthy process where he is forced to resort to the courts to prove the validity of the signature, and this may result in costs higher than the value of the check, says Ashour.

Legal experts warn that these executive orders will cause the growing security chaos seen lately around the West Bank to get out of hand.

Majed al-Arouri, the executive director of the National Commission for the Independence of the Judiciary, told The Media Line that the most dangerous thing about the amendments is the “possibility of extending the remand of the detainee in some circumstances and trying him in absentia without appearing before the judge and that in some cases it is the defense’s responsibility to bring witnesses” to oppose this.

We will not back down, we will not stop, and we will continue our activities and dialogue unless the enforcement of these decisions is suspended by law

Flanked by members of the Palestinian Bar Association chanting “O Suhail, march, march, we are with you no matter what happens,” Ashour says the group he leads is the “fortress” that protects Palestinians’ rights.

“We will not back down, we will not stop, and we will continue our activities and dialogue unless the enforcement of these decisions is suspended by law,” says Ashour.

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