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Nizar Banat: Family of murdered dissident finds no justice in 'complicit' PA judiciary

A year after the Palestinian activist died in PA custody, no one has yet to be held accountable. The family's patience is now running out
Palestinian demonstrators attend an anti-Palestinian Authority protest, forty days after the death of Nizar Banat, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank 2 August 2021. (Reuters)
Palestinian demonstrators attend an anti-Palestinian Authority protest, 40 days after the death of Nizar Banat, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank 2 August 2021 (Reuters)
By Shatha Hammad in Hebron, occupied Palestine

Ghassan Banat cannot put his guard down.

Since his brother Nizar Banat, an outspoken Mahmoud Abbas critic, died in the Palestinian Authority (PA)'s custody last year, him and the family have been living in angst.

Intimidation, threats and various forms of pressure have been used against them to dissuade them from pursuing the case against 14 PA officers accused of killing the dissident. 

'It has been proven to the family the extent of manipulation, lack of integrity and transparency in the court's procedures'

- Nizar Banat's family

A father of five and a leading anti-PA activist, Nizar Banat died on 24 June 2021, aged 43, shortly after Palestinian security forces stormed his home in Dura in the southern occupied West Bank district of Hebron to detain him.

His death was "unnatural," the PA's justice minister and an independent autopsy said, confirming the family's version of events that he was subjected to physical violence which led to his death.   

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The family points the finger at the PA for what it calls a politically motivated "assassination" of the fierce Abbas critic, who regularly accused the PA of perpetrating torture on political dissidents and criticised it for corruption and security coordination with the Israeli military. 

Now, as the first anniversary of his passing nears, the family has lost faith in the Palestinian judiciary to achieve justice and hold those responsible to account. 

In a months-long trial that has been marred with criticism of court irregularities and complicity, the family says a "silly play" is being performed in the courts that they no longer want to be part of. 

In May, they announced their withdrawal from the case and refused to be part of a process that "beautifies the image of the [Palestinian] security forces," five months after they submitted their evidence to the Palestinian military court.

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On Wednesday, two days before the anniversary of Banat's death, all 14 officers who stand accused of killing him were released on bail by the court, which cited precautionary reasons due to the spread of Covid-19 infections in jails.

The suspects will remain at liberty - so they can get medical checkups - until 2 July, a day before their next court hearing.

Their release, especially ahead of the first anniversary of Banat's death, has angered the family further, who are now vowing to take the case to international courts. 

"This proves that the family's decision to withdraw from the court was the correct and sound move," the family said in a statement.

"It has been proven to the family the extent of manipulation, lack of integrity and transparency in the court's procedures, and the lack of legal will to issue a fair ruling."

'No guarantee for a fair trial'

Following Banat's killing, which sparked widespread angry anti-PA protests in the West Bank that were violently dispersed, the Palestinian military prosecution referred the case to the military court in September, after indicting 14 officers and military personnel.

The family submitted a 2,800-page report, including 25 witness accounts and dozens of footage, to the court in December. 

Palestinian security forces push a protest during an anti–Abbas demonstration in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on 24 June 2021, following the death of Nizar Banat. (AFP)
Palestinian security forces push a protest during an anti–Abbas demonstration in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on 24 June 2021, following the death of Nizar Banat. (AFP)

But in April, the PA ordered the temporary release of 13 out of 14 officers with the start of the holy month of Ramadan, which was the final straw for the family who have been sceptical since the start of the court proceedings. 

In a subsequent statement, the family decided to boycott the court and denounced the PA's decision as a "complete crime that [has been ongoing] before, during, and after the assassination."

Gandi al-Rabi, the family's lawyer, told Middle East Eye the family's withdrawal was the result of a series of "major violations" that have affected the legal process. 

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"The PA's release of the defendants and [allowing them] to go on with their normal life without obtaining the approval of the court raises many questions about the efficiency of the court and its decisions," Rabi said. 

Banat's brother Gassan said there were "no guarantees for a fair trial or the execution of judgments," at the court. 

Despite the mounting evidence they presented, the family said, the PA's "complicity" with the crime continued to hinder the judicial process.

"Our legal team attended all the [court] sessions. Some of them lasted for about five hours, and we did not ask for any postponement. We presented all the evidence that we had gathered during intensive work that spanned over two months," Gassan added.

"We are aware that those who control the inputs of the trial will also control its outputs. But we tried to follow the legal procedures without disrupting the [court] sessions."

Trial violations 

The April releases were perhaps the turning point for the family, but the signs had been there from the onset.

One of the main sticking points for the family was the initial indictment of the 14 officers, which they say does not include any high-ranking officers who ordered the violent arrest. 

No senior officials were arrested from the Hebron Governorate nor the Preventive Security Service (PSS), the PA's internal intelligence agency notorious for its long history of torture allegations and arbitrary detention of peaceful dissidents. 

The court sessions were not attended by the family in person, but the lawyers and other local and international observers – including representatives of the European Union and human rights organisations – were present. 

"The legal team and the observers reported violations that affected the legal process at [the court], including the fact that only the officers who executed the arrest orders were [indicted], while the officials who gave the orders were excluded," Gassan said.

More doubts were raised by the constant postponement of sessions due to the defendants' "deliberate absence," Rabi said. 

"Many violations [occurred], including the defendants' failure to appear in court, their lawyer's deliberate absence from court sessions, and the reliance on [the testimony] of an autopsy doctor who did not supervise the autopsy directly."

In one of the sessions, for example, all 14 defendants "refused to attend," Gassan told MEE, and the court postponed it for two weeks instead of ordering the executive authority to bring them in.

"We are shocked [the way] they managed to impose their will on the court, and how the court responded," said Gassan. 

Palestinian security officers stand guard during a trial of security officers (not seen) over the death of Nizar Banat, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on 14 September 2021. (Reuters)
Palestinian security officers stand guard during a trial of security officers (not seen) over the death of Nizar Banat, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on 14 September 2021 (Reuters)

In addition, the defendants' legal team relied on an eyewitness who was not present during the incident, and a forensic doctor who was suspended by the minister of justice in 2016 over accusations of misconduct, Banat's lawyer team said.

The doctor, Saber al-Aloul, said his suspension was related to "family issues" that he does not wish to disclose. 

Although he did not attend Banat's autopsy, Aloul testified that he had died as a result of heart disease and that the bruises and fractures in his body were caused by the resuscitation attempts at the hospital.

"The legal team also called a camera expert [for testimony] although he had no previous experience in the field and is accused of misconduct, even though the video evidence was provided from people with the judicial capacity and under the supervision of the Public Prosecution," Ghassan told MEE.

A joint independent fact-finding report by the Independent Commission for Human Rights and Al-Haq concluded in March that Banat's death was unnatural, resulting from severe assault, a conclusion that was affirmed by the PA Minister of Justice Mohammed al-Shalaldeh.

'[Lack of questioning] clearly indicates the exclusion of accountability for high-ranking officials'

- Independent fact-finding report

The report concluded that signs of severe swelling in the face and eyelids, as well as haemorrhagic spots, appeared on Banat's body, caused by pulmonary edema fluid which led to suffocation.

The report also raised issue with the lack of questioning of high-ranking officers, namely the deputy director of the PSS in Hebron, saying that it "clearly indicates the exclusion of accountability for high-ranking officials, whether those who gave instructions, those in decision-making positions, or those responsible for supervising the force."

The PA was also criticised in the report for referring the case to the military court rather than a civil court, which it said could reduce the prospect of a fair trial.

Fares Sharaab, a lawyer with the defendants' legal team, did not want to comment on the alleged violations to MEE, citing laws forbidding  defence teams from revealing any details of trial proceedings to the public.

"I have all the answers, but I will be held accountable for violating the court's decision and therefore I can't say," he told MEE.

However, during a court session held on 27 September - in the presence of diplomats, human rights institutions, and journalists - the court's judge rejected a request from the defence lawyers to hold the session behind closed doors.

The judge ruled that the trial would remain public until a verdict is reached, which suggests that there are no confidential proceedings in the trial.

MEE also reached out to the PA's military prosecution for clarification on alleged violations but received no response at the time of publication.

Resorting to international courts

MEE reached out to some of the human rights observers who attended the court sessions for comment, but they were reluctant to speak about it publicly. 

Ashraf Abu Hayya, director of the legal department at al-Haq, a leading Ramallah-based human rights NGO, told MEE that his organisation has recorded many observations on the legal process but they chose not to publicise it yet to prevent it affecting the trial.

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"We seek to maintain our presence as legal observers to document all the proceedings without affecting them or being part of them," Abu Hayya said. "The organisation will disclose its comments after the process is over." 

For now, the trial will continue despite the family's frustrations with the judiciary and boycott of the proceedings. 

"What is going on with Nizar's case has blown the cover of the Palestinian judiciary and the extent to which it is independent of the executive authority," Rabi said. "The Palestinian judiciary is in a very unfortunate state."

Now that the family has lost hope in bringing justice to their son through Palestinian courts, they have decided to resort to international courts.

"In cooperation with a group of lawyers and human rights organisations, we are [working] to hold the accused of the killing of Nizar internationally accountable," Ghassan told MEE. 

"This will take months, and it will be a long path, but we will take it," he continued. "The family had already begun the procedures to submit a file to the British courts."

Continuous threats

The family's anger against the PA's judicial system is only compounded by the threats and intimidations they have faced since Banat's death to drop the case or tone down their criticism.

With a gun to his side that he keeps with him most of the time, Ghassan told MEE he no longer sleeps at home due to the pressure excreted on him by the PA and the defendants' families. 

"The pressure started from day one when the killers' families offered us money in exchange for closing the case," he said. 

"The PA punishes anyone who attempts to defend Nizar's [case], including by arrests, summons, and job dismissal that affected several employees in the PA's institutions and others in private companies."

MEE learned that Nizar Banat's widow, Jihan Banat, had stopped accepting media interviews or making statements related to her husband's killing in recent months due to threats and pressures imposed by PA officials on her family. 

Jihan declined MEE's request for an interview.

She broke her silence on Wednesday following the release of the 14 suspects calling it a "manipulation and injustice".

"What I can say is that their release is a clear injustice and an affirmation that Nizar's assassination was a political decision and not a mistake," she told AFP.

'I never expected that he would be killed, it was a great shock to us'

- Zain Banat, Nizar Banat's sister

"As we have always said, the murderer cannot be the judge."

Banat's sister, Zain, who had not seen him for 15 years before he died, told MEE she feels heartbroken for the Palestinian judiciary's failure to bring justice to her brother.

Zain cannot visit the West Bank as she does not have a Palestinian passport but used to reunite with her brother in Jordan where she lives. 

However, the Israeli authorities had imposed restrictions on Banat's freedom of travel for years before his death. 

When he died, Banat had not seen his parents, who live in Jordan, for three years.

"I was following what Nizar used to post about the PA's corruption and I expected that one day he would be punished with arrest. But I never expected that he would be killed, it was a great shock to us," Zain said in a phone interview with MEE.

"Since Nizar's killing, I have been more aware of the PA's corruption, and this prompted me to continue the work of my brother. I started posting constantly on Facebook about the abuses and violations committed by the PA," she added.

"Our family will never lose hope and will always seek to hold everyone involved in his killing accountable."

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