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Court orders Palestinian protester held beyond end of his sentence

By Kareem Khadder, CNN
  • Abdallah Abu Rahmah was convicted of incitement for organizing weekly demonstrations
  • Abu Rahmah had already been in prison for ten months and was due to be released Thursday
  • Israel's Military Prosecution petitioned to extend his sentence

Jerusalem (CNN) -- An Israeli military court has prevented the release of a West Bank activist even though he has already served his one year prison sentence.

The president of the military court of appeals Monday ordered Abdallah Abu Rahmah -- whose case has drawn international attention -- to stay in prison after a last minute petition by the Israeli Military Prosecution to extend his sentence.

Abu Rahmah was convicted of incitement for organizing weekly demonstrations in the West Bank village of Bil'in against what Israel calls its security barrier and Palestinians call the apartheid separation wall. Israel says the barrier is needed for security, Palestinians say it is a land grab which cuts through village farmlands. The protests started five years ago.

The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, the group to which Abu Rahmah belongs to said in a statement, "The decision contradicts the jurisprudence of the Israeli Supreme Court on the issue, instructing that a prisoner should only be kept under arrest after his term was over in the most extraordinary of cases."

Gaby Lasky, Abu Rahmah's lawyer told CNN, "I do believe it is a political decision..." intended to help Israel with its occupation of Palestinian territory.

An Israeli military court in October sentenced Abu Rahmah, 39, to a year in prison for incitement and organizing illegal demonstrations amid criticism from the European Union and human rights organizations that the conviction was politically motivated. He had already been in prison for ten months and was due to be released Thursday.

Speaking in October before his sentencing, Abu Rahmah rejected the Israeli charges against him. "We want to continue our struggle. We want to continue to have our rights until we will have freedom and independence to remove the wall, to remove the settlements, to remove all of these things and this illegal wall and arresting the people," he said. "And we will not stop because this is our right, this is our land. We must continue this until we have freedom."

The international rights group Human Rights Watch said that Abu Rahmah's detention and trial raised serious concerns about violations of due process. The group said the sentence "essentially criminalizes peaceful expression by Palestinians protesting the de facto confiscation of their land."

On Abu Rahmah's conviction, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, released a statement saying the EU viewed him as a "human rights defender" and expressed concern that his imprisonment might be "intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest against the existence of the separation barriers in a nonviolent manner."

The Israeli Supreme Court originally ruled in September 2007 that part of the fence near the West Bank village of Bil'in was illegal and needed to be moved to give residents some of their farmland back. The Israel Defense Forces told CNN the work to move the fence started in February 2010, but residents say none of the fence has been moved.

Palestinian protest organizers, backed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, say nonviolence is their best weapon to increase international pressure on Israel to end its occupation. But some Palestinian youths throw stones at the Israeli military during the protests, and the military fires stun grenades, tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and, sometimes, live rounds.

Both the military and the youths have been blamed for instigating the violence.

Organizers of the movement say they are unable to control youths who use their protests to throw stones.

Nine protesters have been killed in Bil'in and other neighboring areas of demonstrations in the past two years, and hundreds have been injured, according to protest organizers. Israel says hundreds of its military personnel have been injured by stones.

Protest movement organizer Jonathan Pollock said the Israeli military was trying to make an example of Abu Rahmah to prevent others from demonstrating, but he said the tactic would not work.

"Hundreds and hundreds of arrests in the past year have not stopped demonstrations, and (the) sentencing of a single person is not going to affect a movement."

-- CNN's Paula Hancocks contributed to this report