Israeli court sentences Palestinian protest leader

May 29, 2012 - 8:27 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi sits with his wife as they wait for his trial at Israel's Ofer military court near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. An Israeli military court has sentenced a prominent Palestinian protest leader to 13 months jail for urging youths to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. But Tamimi will be a free man Tuesday, because he already spent that period of time in jail while awaiting trial. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

OFER MILITARY BASE, West Bank (AP) — An Israeli military court Tuesday sentenced a Palestinian protest leader to 13 months in jail, time he already served for urging youths to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers.

Bassem al-Tamimi, 45, walked free because he already spent that much time in jail while awaiting trial. The activist led weekly marches in his West Bank village of Nabi Saleh for years to protest Jewish settlers seizing a nearby well for their own use, mirroring other protests in Palestinian villages.

The court said he was convicted mostly on the basis of a confession given by a 15-year-old. The teen was interrogated without a lawyer present, his relatives and activists said.

The case against him sparked European Union criticism of Israel's policy of imprisoning Palestinian protest leaders.

Many of those protests turn into clashes between stone-throwing youths and Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Typically, youths appear to act on their own, while protest leaders do little to halt them.

Al-Tamimi said the sentence highlighted the "absurdity" of the case, matching the time he spent in prison before his 85-year-old mother suffered a stroke, prompting his conditional release in April.

Al-Tamimi said he was at the mercy of statements taken from vulnerable youths interrogated by Israeli forces.

"Any child who is threatened could say my name in any matter, and I'll go back to prison," al-Tamimi said after the trial.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said al-Tamimi was also given a 17-month suspended sentence, but the term was canceled because of his clean prison record and "irregularities in the trial."

She was referring to the judge's decision not to use evidence from two other Palestinians, including a 14-year-old, because of contradictions in their confessions. The spokeswoman spoke anonymously according to military regulations.

Al-Tamimi is among several protest leaders arrested in recent years for organizing what Israel defines as illegal demonstrations. Rights groups say the arrests are an attempt to stifle expression. Those cases also relied on confessions from minors.

In al-Tamimi's case, evidence was chiefly taken from a confession by a teen relative who was detained after he was caught throwing rocks. Activists and relatives protested that a lawyer was not present when he gave his evidence.

Israeli officials say the interrogations are necessary to quell violence. They say Palestinians are offered fair trials. Most Palestinians take plea bargains instead of going to trial, because few are cleared after a lengthy legal process.

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Additional reporting by Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem. Follow Hadid on http://twitter.com/diaahadid