Barghouti found guilty in 5 deaths

Israeli court convicts Palestinian leader, but acquits him in 21 killings

May 21, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TEL AVIV, Israel - An Israeli court convicted Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti yesterday of ordering shootings that claimed the lives of four Israelis and a Greek monk and of supplying funds and arms for other attacks.

The Tel Aviv District Court found the 44-year-old Barghouti of five counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of membership in a terrorist group.

The prosecution asked for five consecutive life terms. Sentencing is set for June 6.

Hours later, Israeli troops and tanks began pulling out of the Rafah refugee camp at daybreak, residents said, after a three-day sweep that left 39 Palestinians dead and drew international criticism.

In the Barghouti case, the three judges cleared him of responsibility for 21 other deaths, ruling there was no evidence directly connecting him to those attacks.

They stressed that under Israeli law, even evidence of a fair degree of organizational control over such assailants was not sufficient for a conviction, unless direct involvement in their activities was proved.

Legal analysts said the precedent set by that decision could make it more difficult to prove the culpability of other Palestinian political leaders in suicide bombings, shootings and other acts of violence by militants.

Barghouti reiterated yesterday that he does not accept the court's authority. He also said he believes there will be peace if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza.

"I call on the Israeli public: Don't believe for one moment that you can overcome the Palestinians with force," he said. "Palestinians have no power, but they have justice on their side."

His trial, which began more than 18 months ago, was as much a piece of political theater as a legal proceeding.

From the beginning, the Palestinian lawmaker - who was snatched by Israeli commandos two years ago in a West Bank raid - insisted that he did not recognize the authority of the Israeli court.

Barghouti spurned legal assistance and mounted no formal defense. He gave incendiary courtroom speeches in fluent Hebrew that he had learned during previous incarceration in Israeli jails. He was photographed time and again defiantly raising his manacled hands clasped into a fist.

At court sessions, Barghouti sometimes bantered with court officials and occasionally exchanged gibes with spectators, some of them relatives of Israelis killed in attacks, who regularly disrupted hearings by screaming that he was a murderer and a terrorist.

Barghouti, who headed the West Bank branch of Arafat's Fatah political faction, was the most senior Palestinian official to be charged and convicted in an Israeli court as a leader of the uprising.

Israel described him as a driving force behind the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed Palestinian militia loosely linked to Fatah that sprang up in the early days of the 3 1/2 -year-old conflict. But Barghouti is also a longtime advocate of a negotiated peace with Israel.

Barghouti was found guilty, in part based on his own statements and those of associates, of involvement in three fatal shootings. One killed a Greek Orthodox monk near his West Bank monastery in 2001; another left a West Bank settler dead in 2002; and a third killed three people at a popular Tel Aviv restaurant later that year.

While denying any direct connection with attacks against Israelis, Barghouti insisted that Palestinians had the right to rise up against an occupying army.

Right up to the troop withdrawal, the Israeli military had continued its offensive in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip despite international condemnation over a deadly tank attack that killed eight Palestinian protesters, most of them children, on Wednesday. Israel apologized for the incident, which also wounded 50 people.

By yesterday, the army had moved into five neighborhoods in the camp, which is home to about 90,000 Palestinians. Light exchanges of fire were reported, and Israeli helicopter gunships flew overhead.

Eight Palestinians were killed yesterday when helicopters and tanks targeted groups of militants. One of the dead was a local Hamas leader who was about to plant explosives when he was killed in a missile strike.

Residents said that Israeli troops demolished eight homes overnight, and that bulldozers moved into the Brazil area of the camp yesterday, knocking down two homes and a shop.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment, but has said it only targets homes that provide cover for gunmen or tunnels used to smuggle weapons.

Israeli forces raided the refugee camp less than a week after Palestinian militants killed 13 soldiers in Gaza, seven of them along the Egyptian border.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians, including a 13-year- old boy and a local Hamas leader, in separate clashes. In the incident involving the boy, the army said that soldiers fired at someone throwing a firebomb.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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