Palestinian officers go on trial over death of Abbas critic

Ali Sawafta & Zainah al-Haroun

Reuters  /  September 27, 2021

RAMALLAH, West Bank – A Palestinian military court on Monday began the trial of 14 security officers charged with beating to death a prominent critic of President Mahmoud Abbas, in a case that has drawn widespread protests and calls for his resignation.

Nizar Banat’s death following his arrest on June 24 has heightened criticism of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority and his security forces, who human rights groups say regularly arrest critics in the occupied West Bank. Abbas denies the charges.

An autopsy carried out the day Banat died showed he was struck in the head and over the body with metal rods, leading to his death. The PA, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank, has vowed to hold those responsible to account.

Appearing in Monday’s court session in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the indicted officers pleaded not guilty as prosecutors read out a charge sheet including battery, abuse of power and violation of military instructions.

But Banat’s family have demanded that senior Palestinian officials be held to account over his death, accusing Abbas and his prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, of deflecting blame.

“This is an incomplete and partial court case, and everyone in it is a scapegoat, until the interior minister, the head of the Preventive Security Services and his deputy are behind bars,” Banat’s brother, Ghassan, said outside the courthouse.

Security Services spokesman Talal Dweikat said on Sept. 5 that an internal inquiry found its deputy director for the city of Hebron, where Banat was arrested, was not involved in his death. The indicted officers’ lawyer did not provide comment.

With over 100,000 followers on Facebook, Banat often accused the PA of corruption and criticized Abbas’s postponement of a long-delayed election in May. Banat had registered as a parliamentary candidate for that contest.

Pressure has mounted on Abbas (85) since Banat’s death, and his approval rating has further plummeted.

Some 78% want Abbas to resign, a September poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found, a 10 percent increase from a poll the group released three months earlier, before Banat’s death.

The next hearing for the 14 officers is set to take place on Oct. 4.

Editing by Rami Ayyub and William Maclean