Court backs release of Hamas officials

Israeli military finds little chance of conviction on terror charges

September 13, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli military court ordered yesterday the release of 18 jailed Hamas politicians, including the speaker of the Palestinian parliament and three Cabinet members, who were arrested after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in June.

The court ruled that the prosecution appeared to have little chance of gaining convictions because Israel allowed the Palestinian parliamentary elections during which the defendants won their seats in January and let them serve for months before arresting them.

Israeli prosecutors were given two days to appeal the release orders, and the court left intact for now the terrorism-related charges against the Hamas officials.

Three other Hamas lawmakers who had been previously ordered freed await a separate prosecution appeal today. Prosecutors said the outcome of that hearing probably would determine whether they withdraw indictments against all the Hamas members.

More than 30 Hamas lawmakers and Cabinet members were rounded up for their ties to the radical Islamic group, which is banned by Israel as a terrorist organization. The officials include Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, parliament Speaker Aziz Dweik and Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek.

The court decision came a day after Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, announced that his Fatah movement would form a coalition government with Hamas in hopes of ending a months-old international aid embargo led by the United States and the European Union. Israeli officials said the court decision is unrelated to the Palestinian agreement.

Israel began the wave of arrests in late June, coinciding with an army incursion into the Gaza Strip, after Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured in southern Israel by Palestinian militants based in Gaza. Hamas fighters claimed shared responsibility for the June 25 raid.

Palestinian officials decried the arrest campaign as another blow to the struggling Palestinian Authority. Hamas won a parliamentary majority, and control of the government, during January elections.

The cutoff of international aid, aggravated by Israel's decision to withhold about $50 million monthly in tax and customs duties that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, has left the Palestinian government broke and close to collapse. The worsening financial crisis and rising public discontent pushed Abbas and Hamas into an alliance in hopes of getting aid flowing again.

Meanwhile, in the most recent fighting, Palestinian militants killed an Israeli soldier early yesterday as the army moved into an area in the central Gaza Strip. Military operations in Gaza since the June kidnapping have left more than 200 Palestinians dead.

In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old Palestinian youth in Bethlehem during an arrest raid, Palestinian news media reported. An Israeli military spokesman said troops opened fire after crowds hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and grenades at the troops, injuring two.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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