Israel convicts Palestinian protest leader

An Israeli military court on Sunday convicted a Palestinian protest leader of urging youths to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, ruling in a case that sparked international criticism of Israeli practices in the West Bank.

Bassem al-Tamimi — a symbol of Palestinian opposition to Israeli military rule praised by the European Union as a human rights defender — was convicted largely because of a confession by a 15-year-old interrogated without a lawyer.

The veteran activist has led weekly marches in his West Bank village of Nabi Saleh to protest Jewish settlers seizing a nearby well for their own use, mirroring other protests in rural Palestinian villages against similar practices. Many of those protests turn into clashes between stone-throwing youths and Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

During Sunday's session, two dozen European diplomats crowded into a trailer-like court room at the Ofer military detention center. Al-Tamimi was released on bail last month, after 13 months in detention, and sat close to his wife, 35-year-old Nariman. She frequently rested her head on his shoulder.

"I believe in the legitimacy of what I do," al-Tamimi said after the verdict. "I lead peaceful protests," he said.

The London-based Amnesty International has called Tamimi a "prisoner of conscience."

Tamimi is among several Palestinian protest leaders arrested in recent years on charges of organizing what Israel defines as illegal demonstrations. Rights groups criticize the arrests as an attempt to stifle expression. Those cases have also relied on confessions extracted from minor; rights groups say the interrogations are unlawful.

Israeli officials say the interrogations are neccessary to quell violence. They say Palestinians are offered fair trials.

In al-Tamimi's case, evidence for his conviction was chiefly taken from a confession by a relative, then-15-year-old Muatassim al-Tamimi. He was arrested in January 2011, after being caught throwing stones.

Two men interrogated him for about three hours. He was not allowed to see a lawyer. His interrogator, speaking in broken, heavily accented Arabic, shouts at the sleepy minor, according to an edited version of the videotaped interrogation given to The Associated Press by activists. Several times, an interrogator tells the minor he was throwing stones at the behest of protest leaders, including al-Tamimi, and urges him to agree.

The military judge in al-Tamimi's case said Sunday she dropped more serious charges of incitement and support for a hostile organization that were based from the confessions of a 14-year-old, saying it was riddled with inconsistencies. She also did not use the confession of a young adult, saying interrogators misrepresented what he actually said.

The judge did not issue a sentencing date for al-Tamimi.


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