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88% of prisoners in Palestinian jails being held without trial

Dinsdag, Mei 12, 2009 / Last Modified: Zaterdag, December 31, 2011

Haaretz,May 12, 2009.

About 18 months ago, a European Union delegation arrived in the Palestinian
Authority to evaluate the condition of prisoners in Palestinian prisons. The
delegation, which was attached to the European Union Police Coordinating
Office for Palestinian Police Support (Eupol Copps) – a group of European
security experts who are involved in the restructuring of the Palestinian police
force – was given a clear order: to bring about reforms in the Palestinian
judiciary.

One of the astounding conclusions of the legal experts from Europe was that 88
percent of all those in jail were being held without trial, a hearing or any
sentencing. This one fact brought to the fore the reality of the problems in the
field of law that the Palestinian Authority is dealing with. At a time when the
Palestinian police force is beginning to show impressive signs of improvement,
acting with determination to restore order throughout the West Bank, in great
part thanks to a reshuffling of the top posts, those arrested are simply thrown
in prison without legal proceedings.

In an effort to amend the situation, the EU group was renamed the rule of law
section.

“We are trying to complete the original task of the team which deals
with rehabilitating the police force,” said Kristoff Luktis, a 44-year old former
Austrian judge who was chosen to head the group. He has been involved in
similar work in other parts of the world, where violent conflict has been the
norm.

He refuses to sound pessimistic when he is asked to describe the situation of
the Palestinian legal system.

“Everyone can understand that in terms of law and order one needs more than
a police force and we have identified many problems,” he said. “For example, it
has not been clear what to do with a suspect. Many of the suspects that were
arrested were held in prison without a trial. In a year and a half we have
succeeded in lowering the numbers and now ‘only’ 80 percent of those in
prison are held without trial. Normal figures are about 50 percent, and in
Austria it is 40 percent.”

Even before the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the number of
European legal experts as part of Eupol Copps was fairly limited, but after Prime
Minister Salam Fayyad took over in the Palestinian Authority, the mandate of
the group was expanded and the staff was bolstered with legal experts from all
over Europe. They are working mostly on legislation in matters of defense of
suspects, criminal investigations, regulations for police, etc. However the
biggest problem Luktis and his staff face is the sorry state of the courts in the
West Bank.

Their ability to legislate new laws or to amend existing ones is very limited in
view of the absence of a Palestinian legislature. The parliament has not
assembled since June 2007 – when Hamas took over in Gaza – and essentially it
is impossible to pass laws.

“We can assist and advise on legislation and even formulate laws, but there is
no parliament to receive them,” Luktis said. “We are sitting here and hoping
that one of these days the legislature will resume function, because in the
absence of legislation the path toward becoming effective is very limited. There
is a possibility of using presidential edicts, but these are a tool for emergencies
only. What can be passed are regulations and bylaws that are helpful in
resolving complicated problems. We are now trying to build an entire
organizational structure: train legal teams – not only judges but also
administration staff. There is also a need for missing equipment and there is still
a long way to go.”

There are 24 courts functioning in the West Bank and of these 14 are
reconciliation courts, which do very basic evaluations of cases; eight are “first
instance” courts, which are like district courts; and there is a Court of Appeals
and the Supreme Court, both in Ramallah. The Supreme Court has a panel of 15
justices.

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