Day of judgement: Inside a Gaza murder trial

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Fathi Ashram (second left) stands inside the Gaza City courtroom during his trial

Human rights groups have condemned the use of the death penalty under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. This week, BBC Arabic's Shahdi Alkashif obtained rare access to a murder trial where three defendants faced death sentences.

In a small room in the basement of a court building in Gaza City, three members of the same family were on trial, accused of killing a relative in December 2010.

Two young men and one man in his fifties stood in a black metal cage in a corner of the room as prosecutors accused them of shooting 28-year-old Mohammed Ashram, who was an official in the Hamas government in Gaza, during an argument over money.

The cage was surrounded by security guards with long beards, and on the back wall there was a plaque bearing words from the Koran: "When you judge between men, you judge with justice."

The judge, a man in his forties also with a long beard, was seated opposite, with advisers to his right and left, as well as a young woman wearing a veil who recorded proceedings.

Also crammed into the room were the prosecution and defence teams, the victim's brothers and several members of the defendants' families, and a number of other lawyers who were waiting for the judge to hear six other cases after the murder trial had ended.

The judge listened to the defence's argument in the Ashram case, but did not appear to find it very convincing. He also heard a prosecutor demand the death penalty.

"The penalty for murder at the Day of Judgement is to be thrown into the fires of Hell," he said. "An innocent young man lost his life, leaving behind a widow and children, and depriving his parents of their son."

After deliberating with his advisers in an adjacent room, the judge emerged to give his verdict.

Those in the courtroom were asked to stand, before the judge found the eldest defendant, Fathi Ashram, guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging.

He then sentenced one of the other defendants to prison and acquitted the third.

Image caption,
Defendant Fathi Ashram was allowed to hug his son during the trial

The verdicts prompted expressions of both satisfaction and anger from the members of the public in the courtroom. There were cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and also claims that there had been a "great injustice".

Afterwards, the judge told the BBC that the authorities in neighbouring Egypt had "assisted" the investigation into Ashram's murder, with one of their forensic laboratories "proving" the involvement of the man who was sentenced to death.

The trial had been held in accordance with Palestinian law, he added.

Public 'very satisfied'

However, such assertions have been challenged by international human rights activists.

Last month, Human Rights Watch demanded that the Hamas authorities halt all planned executions, alleging that Gaza's justice system was deeply flawed.

"The convictions included cases of prolonged arbitrary detention, credible allegations of torture, and convictions based primarily on coerced confessions," it said.

Sixteen prisoners have been executed since 2010, most of them after being convicted of killings or spying for Israel, while another 16 prisoners are awaiting execution, the group said in its report.

The Independent Commission for Human Rights, the official Palestinian rights ombudsman, said a total of 36 people had been sentenced to death in Gaza between February 2010 and June 2013.

Of this number, the authorities had executed at least six men, while another five were sentenced by military courts in absentia, the ICHR added.

Gaza's attorney general, Ismail Jabir, was quoted by the interior ministry's website as saying: "The law will take its course and no criminal will escape punishment."

He claimed that "the public is very satisfied" with the application of the death penalty, and that "the only complaints come from some human rights organisations".

The authorities would "not pay attention" to them, because "our religious tradition" required capital punishment as a deterrent, Mr Jabir insisted.