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December 3, 2008

Prime Minister Ismail Haniya

Office of the Prime Minister

Gaza City

(By Fax and E-Mail)

Dear Prime Minister Haniya

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the widespread recourse that Palestinian courts have recently had to the death penalty both the Gaza Strip and West Bank. So far in 2008, courts within Gaza, which is under the administration of your government, have sentenced  6 people to death, including a defendant who was a child at the time of the alleged offense.

We strongly urge to use your authority to speak out publicly against the use of the death penalty by Palestinian courts in Gaza. Human Rights Watch opposes the use of the death penalty in all cases as a violation of the right to life and because of the possibility that individuals wrongly convicted may be executed. We also regard it as a cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.

Human Rights Watch is especially concerned about the case of Sa'id Jameel Zuhod, who was 17 at the time of his alleged offense, and therefore a juvenile. International human rights law and customary law absolutely prohibit the death penalty for all crimes committed by persons under age 18 at the time of the offense.

Zuhod was accused of participating in the rape and murder of a child in September 2003, with three adults, Ihab Diab Abu al-‘Amrain, Rami Sa'id Juha, and ‘Abdul Fattah Mohammed Sammour. In recognition of his young age, the  District Court of Gaza on April 13, 2004, sentenced Zuhod to life imprisonment, although it sentenced his co-defendants to death.

However, on June 14, 2005, the Court of Appeals rejected the lower court's decision, re-sentencing Zuhod to death along with his co-defendants. The Gaza Court of Cassation upheld all four death sentences on October 29, 2008, despite an appeal by Zuhod's lawyer that as a juvenile he should receive a reduced sentence.

The Palestinian Authority has never before executed a person for a crime committed as a child. It would be a grave error to do so now, when the rest of the world is steadily moving toward universal compliance with the absolute prohibition against the juvenile death penalty. Since January 2005, only five governments in the world-Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Yemen-have executed juvenile offenders, and only Iran has executed a juvenile offender since August 2007.

Prime Minister, the world is  moving toward abolition of the death penalty, as reflected in the UN General Assembly's December 8, 2007 resolution calling for a global moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.

While international law does not ban outright the death penalty for persons over 18 at the time of the offense for all states, it does put stringent restrictions on its use, and encourages those states that still retain the death penalty to take the necessary steps to abolish it.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - the most widely accepted international standard on the use of the death penalty - states that "sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years". Signatories of the covenant also agree that only the most serious crimes be subject to the death penalty.  According to the ICCPR, states may impose the death penalty only if courts rigorously adhere to the rules of due process set forth in the Covenant, and provided that the defendant had the right to appeal the court's decision.

The Palestinian Authority is not a sovereign state that can sign and ratify international human rights treaties, but it has repeatedly committed itself to respect international human rights law. According to article 10 of the Basic Law, the Palestinian National Authority "shall work without delay to become a party to regional and international declarations and covenants that protect human rights." The Palestinian Authority has also committed itself in the Oslo accords to exercise its power and responsibilities "with due regard to internationally accepted norms of human rights and the rule of law."

As your administration considers itself to be the lawful government of the Palestinian Authority, you should therefore ensure it meets the Palestinian Authority's commitments to govern in accordance with international human rights standards.

The Palestinian judicial system contravenes these standards in several ways: First, the number of offenses for which the death sentence may be imposed is extremely broad, and inconsistent with the requirement that this punishment be restricted to the most grievous crimes. The Palestinian Penal Code allows an ordinary court in the West Bank to impose the death penalty for seventeen separate offenses; in the Gaza Strip, fifteen offenses are subject to the death penalty.

We are particularly disturbed by the Palestinian Authority's recourse to the death penalty by  state security and military courts, contradicting a commitment made by President Abbas on June 22, 2005, to refer all death penalty cases to civilian courts. Military and state security courts impose the death penalty, pursuant to the PLO Revolutionary Penal Code of 1979. This code, which the Palestinian Legislative Council has never ratified, allows the death penalty for forty-two separate offenses.

Trials in these courts deny defendants protections afforded by elementary rules of due process. Defendants have no meaningful opportunity to defend themselves, and there is no independent appeal of sentences issued by these courts. In military courts, the same judges that issue the initial ruling also rule on the appeal. Thereafter only the president of the Palestinian Authority has the power to alter the sentence.

In addition to the four people sentenced to death by civil courts in Gaza two people were sentenced to death by military courts : The high military court in Gaza sentenced Yasser Sa'id Zanoun, age 41, to death on January 24, 2008, for murdering fellow-policeman Ismail Mashwahi in June 2007. On July 20 the court also sentenced Eyad Ahmed Sukkar, age 35, to death for what judges said were "hostile activities against Palestinian revolutionists and military operations of the Palestinian revolution."

We urge you to do all you can with in your authority to prevent the execution of  those sentenced to death in Gaza, and to call publicly for a moratorium on all executions, and work with the Palestinian Legislative Council to pass and implement legislation to ensure the ultimate elimination of the death penalty in Palestinian law. We also urge to you to help ensure that all death penalty cases heard before military and state security courts be re-tried in civilian courts.


Sarah Leah Whitson                                                                        Lois Whitman

Executive Director                                                                           Executive Director

Middle East and North Africa Division                     Children's Rights Division

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