Palestinians Overturn Order to Free Militant

The Palestinian Cabinet late Monday overrode a decision by the Palestinian Supreme Court to release a militant being held in a West Bank prison.

Israel had complained that the court's ruling earlier Monday in the case of Ahmed Saadat violated a deal worked out with the United States and Britain, who are supervising Saadat and five other Palestinian prisoners at a prison in Jericho.

In a statement, the Palestinian Cabinet said it respected the court's ruling, but could not implement it because "the Israeli occupation forces closed the city of Jericho immediately after the decision, and (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's spokesman had threatened to assassinate" Saadat.

The court had said that there was no evidence against Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the faction that assassinated an Israeli Cabinet minister last October.

Saadat, four members of the PFLP and a sixth man were taken to Jericho as part of an agreement that ended Israel's 34-day siege of Arafat's office May 1. The six were placed under the supervision of British and U.S. wardens.

The Supreme Court decision might complicate the mission of CIA director George Tenet, who arrived in the area Monday. His main mission is to discuss reforms in Arafat's regime, including streamlining its sprawling security services and building an independent court system.

However, while overturning the Supreme Court decision might save Tenet the embarrassment of dealing with a U.S.-brokered deal that was coming unraveled with the release of a key prisoner, the Cabinet decision was another case of the executive branch overruling the judicial.

Arafat has the final say in decisions like this, and the Cabinet statement keeping Saadat in prison was in the name of his leadership.

Israeli officials have long charged that Palestinian imprisonment of suspected militants is a sham, because some militants are released shortly after they are imprisoned, and many are allowed to come and go from the lockups as they please. The Israelis refer to the Palestinian prison system as the "revolving door."

PFLP gunmen assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in Jerusalem on Oct. 17, 2001. The PFLP said it was retaliation for Israel's killing of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa two months earlier.

During the Israeli siege, Arafat convened a makeshift court in his office, which convicted the four PFLP members and sentenced them to prison terms of one to 18 years. However, Saadat was not charged, and neither was the sixth man, Fuad Shoubaki, said to be the mastermind of a seaborne Palestinian arms shipment intercepted by the Israeli navy in January.

In Gaza, a three-judge panel of the Palestinian Supreme Court ruled after a one-hour hearing that Saadat should be released. Outside the courtroom, several dozen PFLP backers, expecting the ruling, celebrated.

There was no immediate Israeli comment on the Palestinian Cabinet decision.

After the court ruling, Sharon said that Israel "will take all the necessary steps so that he will not be released." Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that if Saadat is freed, that would "free Israel of its obligations" under the deal. He did not elaborate.

At an Israeli Cabinet meeting Sunday, the head of Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service, Avi Dichter, complained that the six prisoners at the Jericho jail were receiving unlimited numbers of visitors and were permitted to mingle among themselves — both which he said were violations of the agreement reached last month.

The men were also allowed to use cell phones until they were taken away two weeks ago, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.