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Palestinian Authority said to arrest main witness in trial for critic’s killing

Family says Nizar Banat’s cousin, who alleges seeing Abbas’s security officers beat the PA critic to death, was detained Monday; 14 indicted officers arraigned at Ramallah court

Angry demonstrators carry pictures of Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority, and chant anti-PA slogans during a rally protesting his death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Angry demonstrators carry pictures of Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority, and chant anti-PA slogans during a rally protesting his death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Palestinian Authority security forces on Monday morning arrested the main witness in the trial of 14 PA officers for the killing of anti-PA activist Nizar Banat, his family said.

Banat was well-known for his caustic commentary on Palestinian politics on social media. In his videos, he regularly denounced PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior PA officials.

In late June, PA officers stormed Banat’s hideout in southern Hebron before allegedly beating him to death, according to the charges against them. Banat’s death drew international condemnation and sparked rare protests against the PA leadership by West Bank Palestinians.

Hussein Banat, Nizar’s cousin, was one of two witnesses to the night raid that left Banat dead. His testimony is central to the charges against the PA officers. A source close to Banat’s relatives told The Times of Israel that they believe the arrest is a means to pressure them into silence.

Reached by telephone, the Hebron branch of the PA security forces declined to comment. A spokesperson for the PA security forces did not respond to several phone calls.

The Palestinian security officers accused of killing Banat were arraigned on Monday morning at a military court in Ramallah. The trial had been delayed two weeks, after their defense attorney failed to show at the previous hearing. He later said he had been infected with coronavirus.

A Palestinian military judge formally read out the rap sheet to the accused, who have been indicted with “fatally beating” Banat to death. The indictment sketches a chilling scene: PA officers broke into Banat’s hideout in the dead of night, before fatally beating him to death with iron poles.

The two main witnesses — Hussein Banat and Mohammad Banat — were sleeping on mattresses on the ground next to Banat, according to the charge sheet.

“[The officers] sprayed pepper gas at [Hussein and Mohammad] and placed guns to their heads and told them not to move. At the same time, one of the officers went to [Banat’s] bed carrying an iron crowbar and began to severely beat him all over his body,” the indictment said.

“At that moment, the rest of the officers who had entered the house joined in, brutally beating him with iron crowbars, a staff, pistol butts, their hands and feet. They dragged him from the bed on which he was sleeping onto the ground and stripped his upper body” before continuing to beat him, military prosecutors said.

The officers were overseen by a colonel in the local branch of the PA security services, who allegedly urged them on as they beat Banat, saying, “Keep going.” After they finished beating him, they dragged him off to the local PA security force precinct, prosecutors said.

According to the indictment, the colonel called his superior to inform him that Banat’s condition had deteriorated. His boss ordered him to immediately take Banat to a hospital. They arrived at Hebron’s Alia Hospital at 3:50 am, but Banat showed no signs of life, PA military prosecutors said.

Lawyers prepare for a hearing in the trial of 14 Palestinian security officers accused of beating anti-Palestinian Authority activist Nizar Banat to death, on Tuesday, September 14, 2021. (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

According to Banat’s death certificate, the beating sent him into traumatic shock. He ultimately died of acute cardiac arrest that same morning.

In public statements following the incident, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh pledged that a commission of inquiry would prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law.

“The investigative committee that was formed will carry out its work with full transparency in order to ascertain the truth, and put matters in right within the framework of Palestinian law,” Shtayyeh said.

The commission eventually comprised Justice Minister Mohammad Shalaldeh and a representative from the security forces. The Banat family and an independent human rights group were initially part of the panel but later withdrew.

No senior Palestinian intelligence officials or politicians were ultimately charged in the case.

Banat’s family has said that indicting only those who allegedly beat him to death misses the point. They have expressed little hope that the military tribunal will bring results, with some family members calling it “a farce.”

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