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(Jerusalem) – The Hamas authorities’ execution of three convicted prisoners by hanging on April 7, 2012, highlights the need for a moratorium on capital punishment in Gaza, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch, which opposes the death penalty in all cases as cruel and inhuman punishment, said the persistence of unfair trials made the executions particularly egregious.

At least one other prisoner is at imminent risk of execution in Gaza. His final appeal of a death sentence was rejected by the highest military court in February.

“The Hamas government’s stated commitment to justice should include ending the death penalty, which makes worse the well documented injustices of Gaza’s courts,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than executing prisoners, Hamas should focus on reforming its justice system.”

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which military courts in Gaza failed to examine credible evidence that the accused were convicted on the basis of confessions coerced under torture, as well as other due process violations like arbitrary arrest and failure to allow detainees to consult with lawyers until after they had been interrogated.

The Interior Ministry announced the executions of three men, convicted in unrelated cases, in a statement on its website. The men had exhausted their appeals, and the victims’ relatives did not agree to accept compensation in lieu of their executions, the statement said.

In the case of a man identified only as M.B., a 49-year-old resident of Deir al-Balah, the civil first instance court in Deir al-Balah had sentenced him to death on March 30, 2010, for murder. The Gaza Court of Cassation upheld the ruling on February 16, 2012, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), an independent group based in Gaza. Amnesty International identified him as Mohammed Baraka and said he had been convicted of killing a relative.

In the case of M.A’., a 20-year-old resident of Rafah, the civil first instance court in Khan Yunis had sentenced him to death on November 24, 2010, for abducting, raping, and killing a child in July 2010, according to the Independent Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian rights ombudsman. The sentence was confirmed by the appeals court in Gaza City on November 2, 2011, and by the court of cassation on February 29, PCHR reported.

M.A’.’s brother told Addameer, another Palestinian rights group, that the family was notified on April 6 of his impending execution and allowed to see him in prison at 1 a.m. on April 7. At 6:45 a.m. prison authorities phoned the family to say M.A.’ had been executed.

The two men were convicted under the 1936 Penal Code (no. 74), dating from the British Mandate.

In the third case, Gaza’s Supreme Military Court upheld on February 2 the death sentence by hanging for W.J., 27, from the Bureij camp in central Gaza, the rights ombudsman reported. W. J. was found guilty by a lower tribunal, the Permanent Military Court, on March 29, 2011, of treason and complicity in murder under the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Revolutionary Penal Code of 1979.

The Palestinian rights ombudsman also said the Hamas authorities may soon execute at least one other prisoner. On February 14 the Supreme Military Court in Gaza City upheld a death sentence by firing squad against Jamil Zakaria Juha, 29, of Gaza City. The permanent military court had sentenced him to death on December 6, 2010, for complicity in murder. He has no more appeals.

Military courts in both Gaza and the West Bank apply the PLO’s Revolutionary Penal Code, which imposes the death penalty for at least 42 crimes, including several that fall well outside of the international standard of “the most serious crimes.” Military court jurisdiction should extend only to military personnel, but Human Rights Watch found that five of the 16 people sentenced to death by military courts in 2009 and 2010 were civilians.

Since taking control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas authorities in Gaza have executed at least 11 men, including five in 2010 and three in 2011. At least five men were executed after convictions by military courts. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has issued death sentences but has not carried any out executions since 2005.

The widespread use of torture on suspects in detention in Gaza adds to fair trial concerns, Human Rights Watch said. The Palestinian rights ombudsman documented 22 allegations of custodial torture in February alone. In 2011 the internal security service of the Interior Ministry and Hamas police in Gaza allegedly tortured 147 people, based on the ombudsman’s monthly reports. Human Rights Watch does not know whether evidence used in court proceedings in these cases had been obtained by coercion.

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