IoL holds legal encounter on Supreme Criminal Chamber in Gaza

Birzeit University’s Institute of Law (IoL) held, on June 15, 2022, a legal encounter to discuss the challenges facing the supreme criminal chamber in Gaza, featuring Dr. Samia al-Ghusein, associate professor of public international law.

Al-Ghusein stated that developed countries showed great interest in establishing and expanding specialized courts. These courts play an effective role in promoting independence, unity and efficiency of the judicial system, gaining full justice for all citizens and ensuring summary disposition of cases. Proceedings previously took an extraneous amount of time before reaching the court, delaying or sometimes denying citizens’ access to their rights.

Al-Ghusein reviewed the legal provisions on the formation of regular courts under Palestinian law. According to Law No. 5 of 2001 on the Formation of Regular Courts, the High Judicial Council (HJC) is vested with the power to establish specialized chambers or panels in the Conciliation Courts, Courts of Appeals and High Courts.

The law, continued al-Ghusein, does not authorize the HJC to create specialized chambers or panels in Courts of First Instance with either civil or criminal jurisdiction.  Each chamber will consist of one or more panels as determined by the presiding judge of the Court of First Instance and according to need. In the event the proper functioning of a court so requires, the presiding judge of the Court of First Instance is entitled to set forth a specialized panel within each civil or criminal chamber in the relevant Court of First Instance or Conciliation Court.

Al-Ghusein elaborated on the High Criminal Court in the West Bank and explained that the Law by Decree on the High Criminal Court was met with strong opposition across the West Bank for several reasons; Most importantly, the formation of a high criminal court by a law by decree was in violation of the provisions of the Palestinian Basic Law.

By a decision of the Chairman of the High Council of Justice, in January 2022, a supreme criminal chamber was established in the Courts of First Instance in the Gaza Strip. The Supreme Criminal Chamber is competent of hearing crimes and serious offences committed in Gaza over the past few years. The chamber has jurisdiction over the crimes of murder, narcotic drugs (acquisition and trafficking) and corruption (civil servants). The formation of the newly established Supreme Criminal Chamber in Gaza was contrary to articles of the law in forming courts in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Ghusein also reviewed the nature of rulings entered by the Supreme Criminal Chamber in the Gaza Strip. In a summary trial, by consensus, the chamber handed down several sentences to death by hanging. The fact these death sentences were made in a short span of time was disquieting. It raised concern over compliance with guarantees of fair trial and whether the accused were able to defend themselves against the charges imputed to them.

Many interventions and recommendations were made during the discussion. Most notably, the establishment of a supreme criminal chamber in the Gaza Strip requires that judges specializing in criminal justice be appointed. The State of Palestine must fulfil its international obligations and abolish the death penalty under domestic Palestinian legislation. To this end, needed legislative amendments should be introduced without delay.