Trying Terrorists Takes Toll On Arafat's Drive for Peace

THE court convenes at night -- behind closed doors. No defense witnesses are called. Family members and media cannot be present. Prosecutors choose the defense lawyers. Appeals are not allowed.

And any verdict can be overturned by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who created this new State Security Court in February to help Israel stop deadly attacks by Islamic militants and keep the Mideast peace process alive.

Since April 9, the court has convicted eight activists of the Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, for their role in attacks against Israel. Sentences range from two to 25 years.

But human rights organizations and Islamic militant groups want the new court abolished. They charge it undermines the rule of law and threatens a fledgling democracy in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho, the new self-rule areas under the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority.

Senior Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials also express reservations about the court, but insist it is necessary to curb Islamic extremists.

''As an ex-prisoner struggling to free my people, I don't want to see any more courts or prisons in my life,'' says Diab Allouh, head of the PLO's Media and Culture office.

''I have just been on a tour of Gaza Central Prison, and it really hurts me to see how many of my fellow Palestinians are being held in the same prison where I was held by the Israelis. But the reality is that the opposition groups [Islamic militants] are encouraging people to engage in military operations which are against the law.

''What are we going to do?'' Mr. Allouh asks. ''Open fire at them and arrest them, or investigate their activities and apply the law?''

Allouh says that dialogue, which the PLO is holding with opposition movements, is the only way to resolve the conflict in the long run.

Attempts by the Palestinian leaders to crack down on Islamic militants by setting a May 11 deadline for them to hand in unlicensed weapons and by arresting large numbers of the terrorists have failed to halt the violent attacks.

So last week, the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- the body set up to administer self-rule -- initiated separate talks with Islamic Jihad and Hamas to try to negotiate an end to the attacks.

PLO officials say talks with Islamic Jihad are making progress, but the larger Hamas is refusing to turn in its weapons and demands the State Security Court be abolished.

And opposition to the courts has intensified since the first session on April 9.

''It is quite clear that these are kangaroo courts,'' says human- rights lawyer Raji Sourani, who was arrested and interrogated several times last month for publicly condemning the courts and later ousted as head of the respected Gaza Center for Rights and Law, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva.

''These courts ... pave the way for the militarization of the society,'' Mr. Sourani says. ''They were not a Palestinian idea -- it was the Israelis who pushed for them and the United States who supported and praised them.''

The PA Preventative Security chief, Col. Mohammed Dahlan, also expresses reservations about the courts and concedes that they fail to meet democratic standards.

But he questions whether Palestinians want a democracy that allows opponents bent on sabotaging the PA to destroy its efforts to achieve a Palestinian state.

''But if democracy erases our aspiration for a Palestinian homeland, then we don't want this kind of democracy,'' Colonel Dahlan says.

''Where were these human-rights activists when we were languishing in prison?'' asks Dahlan, who served time in Israeli jails before being deported to Jordan in 1985. In exile, he later became a key organizer of the intifadah (uprising) that began in 1987 and ended with the signing of the Israel-PLO self-rule accord in September 1993.

''We are doing something we believe in. Personally, I am not doing this kind of work because of pressure from Israel, the US, or Arafat. We don't want to give the Israelis any more excuses,'' he says, referring to Israel's insistence that Arafat must show he can contain Islamic militants before Israel will agree to redeploy its troops in the West Bank or set a date for Palestinian elections.

PA Attorney General Khaled al-Qidra, the architect of the courts and former legal adviser to Egypt's military governor in the Gaza Strip in the 1960s, did not respond to requests for an interview.

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