Palestinian politician, witnesses defy Israeli court

Terrorism suspect refuses to take part in murder trial


JERUSALEM -- Israel's trial of Marwan Barghouti, the most prominent Palestinian politician in its custody, began yesterday with the defendant's refusal to address the murder charges against him and Palestinian witnesses' refusal to testify.

Israel accuses Barghouti of masterminding attacks that killed 26 Israelis, but he says he is a politician being tried illegally. He is a member of the Palestinian Parliament and the West Bank chief of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

"This court is only representing the occupation," Barghouti, 43, told the three-judge panel in a Tel Aviv courtroom. "I do not relate to this dirty process of lies." He ordered his court-appointed lawyers not to take part, and they declined to cross-examine witnesses.

One Palestinian witness put his hands over his ears, while another tore up a document that prosecutors said was in his handwriting.

As the trial proceeded, Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip killed two Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, while rounding up suspects and clashing with gunmen and stone-throwers in a Palestinian village.

Barghouti was the most popular member of a rising generation of Fatah leaders and a contender to replace Arafat eventually, but Israeli forces arrested him a year ago in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israeli officials say they can prove his involvement in terrorism and through him directly link Arafat to such violence.

A series of procedural hearings in recent months degenerated into screaming matches in the courtroom, with the families of Israeli victims shouting that Barghouti was a murderer and with him shouting that the Palestinian uprising would triumph.

There was less shouting yesterday. Barghouti sat between two guards, smiling and nodding at supporters and occasionally flashing the sign for victory.

When Dvora Chen, the prosecutor, described him as belonging to a terrorist organization, he spoke up, saying Fatah was not a terror group. "There is no terror in the world like the occupation," he said.

Chen said she would present five types of evidence: testimony by Israeli victims, testimony by Israeli intelligence officials, documents seized by the Israeli army, evidence of incitement to violence by Barghouti and testimony by Palestinian witnesses.

But the first Palestinian witnesses did not cooperate. One of them, Ismail Rudeidah, who is serving a life sentence for killing an Israeli in the West Bank, listened to one question and said: "Is this is a court? I thought it was a soccer match."

He tore up a document presented to him, and when the prosecution played a videotape of him speaking about Barghouti with the Israeli police, he said, "You going to put on a proper film next?"

Another witness, Bilal Barghouti, a relative of the defendant, said: "You murder women, old people and children. Palestine is ours -- including Jerusalem -- and you have no right to judge us."

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