OFER MILITARY BASE, West Bank (AP) — An Israeli military court Tuesday sentenced a prominent Palestinian protest leader to 13 months in jail for urging youths to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers.
But Bassem al-Tamimi, 45, walked free from the courtroom because he already spent that period of time in jail while awaiting trial. He was conditionally released in April to see his ailing mother.
The activist led weekly marches in his West Bank village of Nabi Saleh for years to protest Jewish settlers seizing a nearby well for their own use, mirroring other protests in rural Palestinian villages.
He was convicted mostly on the basis of a confession given by a 15-year-old interrogated without a lawyer.
The case against him sparked European Union criticism of Israel’s policy of imprisoning Palestinian protest leaders.
Many of those protests turn into clashes between stone-throwing youths and Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Typically, youths appear to act on their own, but protest leaders do little to halt them.
Al-Tamimi said the sentence highlighted the “absurdity” of the case, matching exactly the time he spent in prison before his 85-year-old mother suffered a stroke. He said the case also demonstrated that he was at the mercy of statements taken from vulnerable youths who could be interrogated by Israeli forces.
“Any child who is threatened could say my name in any matter, and I’ll go back to prison,” al-Tamimi said after the trial.
Israeli military spokespeople were not immediately available.
London-based Amnesty International has called al-Tamimi a “prisoner of conscience.”
Al-Tamimi is among several protest leaders arrested in recent years for organizing what Israel defines as illegal demonstrations. Rights groups say the arrests are an attempt to stifle expression. Those cases also relied on confessions extracted from minors.
In al-Tamimi’s case, evidence was chiefly taken from a confession by a teen relative who was arrested after being caught throwing rocks.
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.
Israeli officials say the interrogations are necessary to quell violence and say Palestinians are offered fair trials. Most Palestinians take plea bargains instead of going to trial, seeing it as a lengthy process where only a tiny number are exonerated.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.