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The Hamas authorities in Gaza should immediately halt the use of the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said today. A firing squad executed Mohammed Ismail, 37, and Nasser abu Freih, 34, this morning, following their convictions for collaboration with Israel.

These executions, the first use of a judicial death penalty by Hamas authorities since they took over Gaza in 2007, followed military court trials that raise serious concerns of fair trial violations, Human Rights Watch said.

"Hamas has taken a terrible backward step in carrying out the first judicial executions since it took over Gaza," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Gaza authorities view collaboration as a serious crime, but these executions follow from trials that blatantly violated fair trial standards."

A lawyer who represented Ismail told Human Rights Watch that on November 11, 2009, the high military court in Gaza, which hears appeals, sentenced Ismail to death partly on the basis of his own confession, despite allegations that Hamas security officials had tortured him to extract it. Ismail's lawyer also noted that the high court exceeded its authority by imposing the death penalty, as the court's authority is limited to confirming or rejecting the sentence of the lower military court. The lower court had sentenced Ismail to life in prison after one of its three judges found Ismail not guilty of treason. Military courts can apply the death penalty only in the case of a unanimous verdict.

Military courts had convicted the two men of treason in separate trials. Ahmed Atallah, the head of Hamas' military judiciary, stated today that Ismail and Abu Freih "had aided Israel in killing" Palestinian fighters over the past decade and had been executed only "after their sentences exhausted all appeals and became final and due. " Another person familiar with military court trials in Gaza told Human Rights Watch that a detainee in the military judicial system is not normally given access to a lawyer until interrogation has been completed and the person is sent to Gaza's central prison.

Hamas authorities had detained both men in the central prison. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), based in Gaza, says that Ismail was a civilian from Rafah, on Gaza's southern border. Abu Freih, a resident of the Izbt Abd Rabbo area in the northern Gaza Strip, was a former policeman who had served in the Fatah-dominated police prior to Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

PCHR also said that the Gaza authorities informed the families of both men late last night that they could visit the men and that they would be transferred to other prisons. Each family was then informed by phone calls at around 7 a.m. this morning that their relative had been executed and that they should collect the body from Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and inhuman punishment.  In December 2007, the United Nations General Assembly called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch previously called on the Gaza authorities not to carry out executions after the Hamas interior minister, Fathi Hammad, stated on March 24, 2010, that the Gaza authorities would carry out the death penalty in "the near future" against "agents [of Israel] who have been sentenced to death, regardless of the position of rights groups that reject these kinds of sentences." Most of those facing the death penalty in Gaza are affiliated with the rival Fatah movement or are people whom Hamas military courts have convicted of collaborating with Israel.

Hamas-run military courts in Gaza have sentenced 16 people to death since the beginning of 2009, including 8 convicted of treason. Seven of the 16 were convicted in absentia; the rest are in custody and risk imminent execution. In addition, a Hamas-run civil court sentenced a seventeenth man to death last year.

Under Palestinian law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president must ratify death sentences before they can be carried out. Hamas, which is in conflict with the West Bank-based PA government of President Mahmoud Abbas, announced in May 2009 that it was establishing a committee of legal advisers and officials in the Hamas Ministry of Justice to ratify death sentences.

Human Rights Watch documented 32 extra-judicial executions of alleged Palestinian collaborators, carried out by masked men apparently affiliated with Hamas, during and after Israel's offensive from December 2008 to January 2009.

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