(Jerusalem, December 15, 2008) - Palestinian officials should announce an immediate moratorium on the death penalty and eliminate its use in Palestinian law, Human Rights Watch said today in letters to Palestinian officials.
In 2008, Palestinian civil and military courts have sentenced 11 people to death, including a defendant who was a child at the time of the alleged offense. The last time a Palestinian court sentenced someone to death or Palestinian authorities carried out an execution was in 2005. Under Palestinian law, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, must ratify all death sentences prior to implementation.
"It's deeply disturbing that Palestinian courts have resumed issuing death sentences at a time when the rest of world is moving toward abolishing capital punishment," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. "President Abbas should make clear that he will commute all of these sentences when they arrive on his desk."
Seven of the 11 death sentences this year were issued by military courts, in breach of a commitment made by Abbas in June 2005 to refer all death penalty cases to civilian courts. Palestinian military and state security courts do not meet international fair trial standards. In two of the cases, before military courts in Jenin and Hebron, the trials lasted just one day.
In separate letters to Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in Gaza, Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about the case of Sa'id Jameel Zuhod, who was 17 at the time of his alleged offense.
Zuhod was accused of participating, with three adults, in the rape and murder of a child in September 2003. On October 29, 2008, the Gaza Court of Cassation upheld the June 14, 2005 Gaza Court of Appeals death sentences against Zuhod and three adult co-defendants, Ihab Diab Abu al-‘Amrain, Rami Sa'id Juha, and ‘Abdul Fattah Mohammed Sammour. The appeals court ruling had overturned an April 13, 2004 lower court ruling that had sentenced Zuhod to life imprisonment rather than the death penalty, in recognition of his youth.
Were the Palestinian Authority to execute Zuhod, it would join ranks with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Yemen, the only governments that have executed juvenile offenders since 2005. Iran is the only government to have executed a juvenile offender since August 2007.
International human rights law prohibits the death penalty for all crimes committed by persons under age 18 at the time of the offense. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) puts stringent restrictions on when the death penalty can be used in cases involving adults, and encourages states that still retain the death penalty to take the necessary steps to abolish it.
Human Rights Watch called on Abbas to commute these sentences, including those issued in Gaza, when they come to him for ratification. Human Rights Watch also asked him to renew his commitment to transfer all death penalty cases heard before military or state security courts to civil courts for retrial. Human Rights Watch urged Haniya to speak out publicly against the use of the death penalty by Palestinian courts in Gaza.
The number of offenses for which the death sentence may be imposed under Palestinian law is extremely broad, and inconsistent with the international standard that this punishment, if it is used at all, 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 17 separate offenses; in the Gaza Strip, 15 offenses are subject to the death penalty.
The Palestinian Authority is not a sovereign state, and therefore cannot ratify international human rights treaties, but it has committed itself to respect international human rights law. Hamas authorities in Gaza have also committed themselves to upholding international human rights in public statements, as well as in their claim to be the lawful government of the Palestinian Authority.
Human Rights Watch opposes the use of the death penalty in all cases as a cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment and because of the possibility that individuals wrongly convicted may be executed.
Palestinian civil courts have sentenced four people to death in 2008:
- The Gaza court of Cassation sentenced Sa'id Jameel Zuhod, 22, Ihab Diab Abu al-‘Amrain, 28, Rami Sa'id Juha; 28, and ‘Abd al-Fattah Muhammad Sammour, 26, to death on October 29.
Palestinian military courts have sentenced seven people to death in 2008:
- The high military court in Gaza sentenced Yasser Sa'id Zanoun, 41, to death on January 24, for murdering fellow-policeman Ismail Mashwahi in June 2007. On July 20, the same court sentenced Iyad Ahmad Sukkar, 35, to death for what judges termed "hostile activities against Palestinian revolutionists and military operations of the Palestinian revolution."
- The high military court in Jenin sentenced Tha'ir Mahmoud Ramailat, 23, to death on April 6 for murdering ‘Alaa' ‘Aayesh Mubarak, 20, a fellow member of the Palestinian police. The same court on July 15 sentenced Wa'el Sa'id Sa'id, 27, and Imad Muhammad Sa'id Sa'id, 44, to death for "treason and conspiracy" by acting as informers for Israeli authorities. Imad Muhammad Sa'id Sa'id was sentenced in absentia.
- The high military court in Hebron sentenced ‘Imad Mahmoud Sa'id, 25, to death on April 26, for "treason and collaboration" by providing information to Israeli forces "that led to the deaths of four Palestinian martyrs."
- The high military court in Bethlehem sentenced Ayman Ahmad 'Awwad Daghamgha, 24, a member of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, to death by firing squad on November 12, for "treason and collaborating with Israel."