Trial of Palestinian Security Officers in Death of Nizar Banat Delayed
First session of highly anticipated trial in the killing of outspoken Palestinian activist postponed because suspects’ lawyer failed to appear
One after another, each of the 14 suspects in the killing of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat told the three PLO military court judges their names and ranks. The opening session of the highly anticipated trial was held in a full courtroom in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, but the suspects’ lawyer didn’t show up.
The judge postponed the trial for a week until September 21.
Banat was arrested in late June in Hebron in the West Bank. His family members told media outlets that he was severely beaten during the arrest and was dragged away screaming. The Hebron governorate said in a statement that Banat’s “health deteriorated” following his arrest. Banat, 43, died in a hospital in the West Bank.
Ammar Dwaik, director-general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, told The Media Line that postponing the trial for a week “is an indicator that the court wants to move on fast in the trial process.”
Dwaik says holding a trial is “an important step toward achieving justice in the case of Nizar Banat but it’s not enough.”
“We look for a parallel track in addition to the criminal trial. We look for political accountability for the heads of the security forces who were responsible for this unit. We are looking for genuine reforms to the Palestinian security forces,” he said.
Under heavy security, firm yet overly polite police officers conducted a thorough search of all trial attendees; at times they were apologetic for the small size of the courtroom and the extra security.
The suspects were brought in police cars and placed in a black iron cell in the courtroom. All 14 of the suspects are members of the Palestinian Preventive Security service. They were arrested on July 1 and remain in custody; They were charged a week ago.
The prosecutor told the judge that the suspects’ attorney was informed of the court date when he was given the file on September 7.
We look for a parallel track in addition to the criminal trial. We look for political accountability for the heads of the security force who were responsible for this unit. We are looking for genuine reforms to the Palestinian security forces.
Representatives from the European Union were present in the courthouse. Ambassador Paivi Peltokoski, representative of Finland to Palestine, told The Media Line that the EU is “concerned about human rights in the Palestinian territories. That’s why we are here.”
The gruesome killing of Banat in June gained massive international and local media attention. Infuriated with the way Banat was killed, thousands of Palestinians filled the streets in the West Bank cities of Hebron and Ramallah to protest Banat’s death, demanding an independent investigation and political reforms. These protests were met with an iron fist from the PA security forces, which resorted to aggressive and violent methods of dealing with the protesters, as well as large-scale arrests.
Dr. Amjad Shehab, head of the Freedom and Dignity candidates’ list on which Banat also appeared, had been scheduled to run in the canceled elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). He told The Media Line that the 14 arrested security officers are “scapegoats” for the higher-ups.
“This trial is an attempt to circumvent justice and prosecute some low-rank soldiers who received orders from several senior officials in the Preventive Security or from a certain political level that took the decision to liquidate Nizar Banat,” he said.
Shehab stresses that the Palestinian Authority is under fire for cracking down on freedom of expression, forcing the PA to go on with the trial.
“Without the pressure on the PA, there would be no court. The authority is under European pressure to close the file. This court is only to end the case with minimal damages,” Shehab said.
The European Union delegation to the Palestinians said in a statement after Banat’s death that it was “shocked and saddened” by Banat’s death, and that a “full, independent and transparent investigation should be conducted immediately.”
Omar Assaf, a member of the National Democratic Rally, a West Bank-based political group that includes several activists, told The Media Line that the struggle continues.
“We will continue to defend Nizar’s case, and we demand democratic change, confronting security incursions and limiting freedoms,” he said.
Assaf, who was arrested four times during the PA clampdown on the opposition, warned the PA that he will be watching the court proceedings with a keen eye.
“We will watch what happens in this court and we will address the truth as it is to our people,” he said.
Mohanad Karaja, director of the Lawyers for Justice group, told The Media Line: “Our role as lawyers, observers and international institutions is to monitor litigation procedures.”
The prosecution charged the 14 members of the Palestinian security forces with beating leading to death, violating instructions and abuse of authority. Human rights organizations attended the first court session and admit that the trial is legal, but they claim it’s also insufficient.
In attendance in the courtroom were a team of lawyers representing Banat. Banat’s family, meanwhile, refused to attend the court session and consider the murder an “assassination.”
Social media influencer Alaa Abu Diab wrote a sarcastic post on his Facebook page, calling the courtroom events on Tuesday a “good start to building people’s confidence in the PA’s seriousness in holding the trial!”
Abu Diab questioned the lawyer’s wisdom in not showing up, saying “the clever one who planned, and did not think in a more intelligent, respectful and less harmful way of the court’s image, to postpone?” He added that the attorney should have appeared in court and asked for an extension, because “it would have been the right thing to do. Why continue to provoke people.”
Assaf says just holding a trial doesn’t “restore confidence in the judicial system or the PA.” He notes that time will be the judge, but not yet. “Trust needs transparency, integrity and results. Just because the court is held does not mean that things are fine,” he said.