- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

TEL AVIV — An Israeli court convicted Marwan Barghouti, the most popular Palestinian politician after Yasser Arafat, of the murder of five persons.

The verdict marked the climax of a highly charged case, in which Israeli prosecutors sought to put the Palestinian uprising on trial as a terrorist enterprise.

Barghouti, widely seen as a successor to Mr. Arafat and once viewed by Israel as a potential peace partner, rejected the court’s legitimacy and called himself a freedom fighter.

“If I am to be in jail, I assure you, that is not important. Dying in jail is not important,” said Barghouti, 44, who refused to mount a formal defense.

“My day of freedom will come when the entire Palestinian people will be released from Israeli occupation,” he said.

Israeli prosecutors asked Tel Aviv District Court to give the Palestinian leader five consecutive life terms. Sentencing in the 22-month trial is set for June 6, the Palestinian leader’s birthday.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip vowed to kidnap Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips to negotiate Barghouti’s release, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported on its Web site.

The court decision came as eight Palestinians were killed on the third day of a wide-ranging Israeli military incursion in the Gaza Strip border town of Rafah.

The Tel Aviv court found Barghouti guilty of direct involvement in the planning and authorization of four attacks, including the March 2002 shooting at the Tel Aviv Seafood Market Restaurant in which three persons were killed. He also was found guilty of belonging to a terrorist organization.

But the three-justice panel said in the 143-page verdict that it could not convict Barghouti on more than 30 other charges because of a lack evidence of personal involvement in attacks.

Although the prosecution had demonstrated that Barghouti was the financial and ideological patron behind a militant group that targeted civilians, such evidence is not sufficient under Israeli criminal law. The results are “far from satisfactory,” the judges complained in the decision.

“This highlights the difficultly you have when you put a terrorist on trial using the tools of criminal law,” said Daniel Taub, a legal expert in Israel’s Foreign Ministry who expressed satisfaction with the verdict.

Jawad Boulos, Barghouti’s attorney, said the court’s decision wasn’t a surprise, adding that the Palestinian leader considers the court a tool of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian lands.

Arab members of Israel’s parliament who attended the trial predicted that it was only matter of time before Barghouti is freed.

“Marwan should be negotiated with. He shouldn’t be put in jail,” said parliament member Azmi Bishara. “The judicial system morally failed today.”

At an entrance to the court building, a handful of demonstrators held pictures of victims of terrorist attacks and chanted, “Peace will come when terror ends.”

Barghouti, who was arrested by Israel’s army when soldiers overran Ramallah two years ago, is considered the leading member of the young guard of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party, the largest political faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Although he oversaw the arming of militias within Fatah during the Palestinian uprising, he also is considered a proponent of the peace negotiations with Israel.

A March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found him to be the favorite among Palestinians for the post of vice president.

After he was led into the courtroom in shackles, Barghouti waved to supporters in the audience. During the reading of the verdict, he sat hunched over, often gazing into the crowd in boredom. But when given the chance to respond to the verdict, he stood up and delivered an impassioned, if rambling, political manifesto.

“A day will come when you will be ashamed of this,” Barghouti said. “I fought the Israeli occupation for 30 years, and I’m proud of it. I call on Israelis: Don’t think for a minute that you can defeat the Palestinians by force.”

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