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Arafat Orders Probe of Deaths

March 10, 1999

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Palestinian police killed two teen-age protesters Wednesday after riots broke out over a death sentence imposed on a police agent from a powerful Palestinian family.

The sentence brought protests from human rights groups over the growing use of capital punishment and posed a major political problem for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his autonomy government.

Raed Attar was sentenced to death for his role in a February shootout that killed another police officer, Capt. Rifat Joudeh.

Both men were from prominent families in Rafah, a town bordering Egypt, and belonged to one of the several Palestinian security services that cross into each other’s turf in the absence of clear mandates.

Joudeh’s family had clamored for the death penalty, but Wednesday’s rioting by members of Attar’s family indicated the sentence would not end the problems the case has posed for Arafat.

As he was led away Wednesday from a Gaza City courtroom, Attar shouted: ``There is no justice in Palestine! This court decision has been fabricated!″

It was unclear when Attar, 25, would face the firing squad; a death sentence handed down last month to a police officer convicted in a child rape was carried out within hours of sentencing.

After Wednesday’s sentencing, members of Attar’s family gathered outside the Joudeh home and began throwing stones and bottles. Palestinian police opened fire, killing two youths, aged 17 and 18, then clamped a curfew on Rafah.

Arafat rushed back from a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman to deal with the crisis, and ordered an inquiry into Wednesday’s shootings.

Mohammed Joudeh, the victim’s brother, said the family was pleased with the death sentence, and issued a chilling warning to the Attars.

``If they turn this into a clan vendetta, then we will be more than happy to make it into that,″ he said.

Palestinian courts have imposed numerous death penalties in the past five years. In most cases, however, Arafat has commuted the sentences to life prison terms, although three executions have been carried out. Another death penalty case is now before a West Bank court.

Human rights officials say the death sentences reflect a tendency by the Palestinian Authority to appease popular opinion instead of applying judicial standards.

``In every case the death sentence was carried out, it was because the people screamed for it,″ said Haidar Abdel Shafi of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Bassam Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, said the issue threatens the foundations of Palestinian democracy.

``Arafat is caught between public opinion and implementation of the judicial system,″ he said. ``This is very dangerous, I don’t think this will achieve democratic status for the Authority.″

Demands by the Palestinian Legislative Council for the abolishment of military courts have been ignored by Arafat, who has used the speedy, no-appeals system to put away Islamic militants sought by Israel.

Two other members of Attar’s security service were also sentenced Wednesday: Mohammed Abu Shamaleh, 25, who received a life sentence and Osama Abu Taha, 23, who was sentenced to 15 years. All three were former members of the Islamic militant group Hamas who later joined the Special Security Bureau, an agency under the Palestinian Authority.

During the trial, witnesses gave conflicting testimony on whether the three defendants opened fire on Joudeh, who was trying to arrest them during a car chase in Rafah. The reasons for the arrest were never been made clear.

Israeli officials also complained about Wednesday’s sentencing, saying Attar and the others were on a wanted list Israel gave to the Palestinian Authority after the July 1994 killing of an Israeli soldier near Rafah.

``It was only when he killed a Palestinian officer that he was brought to trial and sentenced to death,″ complained David Bar-Illan, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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