The Never Ending Trial in the Murder of Solidarity Activist Vittorio Arrigoni

Vik and I worked together in the West Bank many years ago. I was shocked to hear about his kidnapping last April, and stunned at his murder.  That said, I was surprised when I heard that the government in Gaza was holding a trial.  How does one maintain a functioning legal system under occupation? How are trials held amidst a siege or behind a blockade?  What did a courthouse in Gaza look like? Did their judges wear robes and sit on high benches, like our judges? What were the rules of evidence? And how would it be, looking into the eyes of Vik’s alleged murderers?

The trial was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. this morning, and I was eager to get to the courthouse early so as not to miss a minute of the trial.  Though a few days of the trial had already been held (an hour here or there every couple of weeks I had been told), I did not want to miss any possible opening statements.  A Palestinian friend of Vik’s said he’d pick us up at 9:30 a.m.  At 9:40 we called him — where was he? I didn’t want to be late! He came at ten to ten, and I was told, don’t worry, the courthouse is a ten minute drive, and anyway, they never start on time.

We arrived at the old stone courthouse at approximately 10 a.m.  Overstuffed velvet sofas lined the high wall surrounding the building, in autumn shades of burgundy and orange.  A donkey cart passed by.

Vik’s trial was taking place at a military court, and I was curious to know why. But before I had a chance to ask Vik’s Palestinian friend, he asked us, “Why is Vik’s trial in military court?”  People put forth some suggestions: “Because the government considers it was an act of terrorism,” or “political crimes are tried by the military.” None of us were quite sure, and Vik’s legal representative, an attorney from the Palestinian Committee for Human Rights, had not yet arrived.

We walked through the gate into a courtyard and security checked our IDs.   Another trial was in session, and the women were lead to a women’s waiting area by a female officer of the court and the men to another. We waited for about an hour on benches on a grassy area.

Shortly before 11 a.m. we were called in. The Defendants were already there, four young men in regular clothes behind a large metal cage.  Previous articles had emphasized they were not handcuffed, but no mention had been made about the cage.

Counsels’ tables faced each other, and the four defense attorneys, all men, sat closest to the cage, clothed in suits and black robes.

Friends and colleagues of Vik’s streamed in, and we crowded onto the benches. The Italians were allowed a translator, but apart from that, no other talking was allowed, nor were cameras or laptop computers. Legs were to remain uncrossed at all times.

The prosecutor then arrived, clad in military pants, a khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a 5 o’clock shadow.  After him, the three judge panel entered wearing olive military uniforms. They too, all appeared to be in their mid-forties.  I was used to old judges with wrinkles and white hair. We rose as court was called to order.

From that moment on, all formalities were dispensed with.  The prosecutor started off by saying that all four defendants were guilty of murder (previously, only two had been charged with murder, the other two as accomplices/aiders and abetters). Then, the defense attempted to have evidence (confessions filmed on video) authenticated, which the panel denied.  Testimony was usually repeated for the court transcriber, drawing out the proceedings.

Nonetheless, I was still looking forward to the direct exam and the cross as well. Who were these guys and why did they do it? Did they feel any remorse? How did one make an evidentiary objection in Arabic?

Alas, none of these questions were answered. There was no “direct” per se.  Certainly no cross. The Chief Judge frequently questioned the defendants – who were not sworn in – calling them up toward the bench, where both the Judge and prosecutor took turns asking questions.  If they wanted to ask the second defendant something, he was called out of the cage, then it would be back to the first defendant.

At various times evidence, such as a cell phone or a laptop was pulled out of bags physically brought over to the judge.

Was this that civil system I heard they used in France? Then I remembered the transcripts I had read of the CSRTs – Combatant Status Review Trials – the U.S. military had created for prisoners held at Guantanamo. Did the richest country in the world not use a similar system in certain circumstances?

After about 20 minutes, lawyers from both sides got into a fight over files that the Defense said weren’t turned over. Defense counsel told the judge that the prosecutor was calling him a liar.  The day ended after thirty minutes in session, when the prosecutor said he needed to get some files. Court is adjourned until November 3, 2011.

More details on today’s proceedings, including quotes from the lawyers and defendants, can be found here: http://palsolidarity.org/2011/10/the-ongoing-trial-in-the-murder-of-solidarity-activist-vittorio-arrigoni/

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