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The World

Palestinian Court Orders Militant Freed

Mideast: As the CIA chief arrives for talks, ruling on assassination suspect riles Israel. West Bank officials keep him jailed for his own safety.

June 04, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Palestinian judges on Monday ordered the release of militant leader and suspected assassination mastermind Ahmed Saadat, stirring this region's rage just as CIA Director George J. Tenet arrived to discuss the troubled Palestinian security services.

Chief of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Saadat was suspected of overseeing the October shooting death of Israel's ultranationalist tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi. Months later, in a hastily assembled Palestinian tribunal, four members of Saadat's group were found guilty of gunning Zeevi down in a hotel hallway, but their leader was neither charged nor brought to trial.

Nevertheless, Saadat and five other wanted men were imprisoned in May as part of a deal ending a monthlong Israeli siege that had trapped Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in his West Bank headquarters. Monday afternoon, a panel of judges ruled unanimously that no evidence linked Saadat to Zeevi's killing and that there was no justification for keeping him behind bars.

Within hours of the hearing, furious Israeli leaders were spitting out veiled threats against the imprisoned radical.

"If he is not brought to justice," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "we will bring justice to him."

It was almost midnight when Palestinian leaders said they feared for Saadat's life and would not release him "in these conditions," calling Gissin's words an assassination threat and citing an Israeli closure of the West Bank city of Jericho, where the jail holding the men is located.

It was a politically crafty maneuver. Arafat faced tremendous pressure from both sides, and any hard stance would have been held up as proof that the Palestinian leader hadn't mended his ways.

As Palestinians were quick to point out, Arafat signed legislation a few weeks ago to guarantee the independence of the courts.

"The court's decision is a step in the right direction," Saadat told the Reuters news agency in an interview from his prison cell. "I hope that the Palestinian Authority will respect the court's ruling at a time when it talks about separation of power and rule of law."

On the other hand, the crisis came in the thick of Israeli complaints that Arafat isn't doing enough to stop renegade attacks. Sharon met with Tenet on Monday night and had been expected to tell him that no change, however drastic, can improve Palestinian security forces as long as Arafat holds power. The release of a suspected assassin would have strengthened his argument.

"The [court's] decision once again proves to anybody with eyes in his head that there's no law, order and certainly no justice in the Palestinian Authority," Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said. "It's proof to the world that there's no change and there are no reforms."

The diplomatic push will continue on other fronts. President Bush is to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Camp David, Md., this weekend. And Sharon is to meet Bush in Washington next Monday, about a month after he cut short a visit in the wake of a suicide bombing.

Mubarak reportedly will push for a timetable for Palestinian statehood.

The turmoil over Saadat is just one more piece of chaos in this charged political landscape. Israel is rattled and enraged by an ongoing spate of suicide bombings and sniper attacks. The bloodshed has continued despite a prolonged hunt by the army for suspected militants.

The Palestinian leadership, which was scheduled to meet with Tenet today, is furious too. For weeks, Israeli soldiers have been laying siege to West Bank cities, villages and refugee camps. The routine is familiar by now: Tanks roll into town, soldiers impose a strict curfew, and everybody cowers behind closed doors. Soldiers ring the neighborhoods, bang on doors and root through rooms in search of damning evidence. Loudspeaker announcements order all males between the ages of 15 and 45 to emerge in the streets to be interrogated.

It goes on for days sometimes. Monday marked the fourth day in a row that Israeli soldiers had kept Nablus, an ancient and bustling West Bank city, locked down. Bomb laboratories have been destroyed, and hundreds of suspects have been carted off to military detention.

This morning, Israeli tanks and troops swept into the West Bank city of Jenin but not its adjacent refugee camp, Palestinian security officials and witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of any clashes with Palestinians.

"The conditions for reform are not there," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo said. "The Israeli army is imposing the strictest siege around the cities, and the confiscation of land is continuing."

In the midst of the low-level warfare, the battle drags on for scraps of this old turf. Under a relentless desert sun, Israeli developers clashed Monday with Palestinians over a scenic run of sand and olive groves on an East Jerusalem hillside.

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