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Israel hands Sheikh Raed Salah 28-month jail term

In his defence Salah argued that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran, and did not constitute a direct call to violence

An Israeli court today sentenced Palestinian resistance icon Sheikh Raed Salah to 28 months in prison, stoking strong condemnation of the country's legal system and the suppression of free speech.

Salah received a 28-month prison sentence from the Haifa Magistrate's Court for remarks he had made at a funeral in 2017. The 61-year-old has already served 11 months in detention as part of his sentence and is therefore expected to remain in prison for 17 months.

Israeli police arrested Salah nearly three years ago, accusing the former mayor of Umm Al-Fahm of praising three Arab Israelis who shot dead two police officers in a July 2017 attack. In November, he was convicted of "incitement" and engaging in "anti-Israel activities" for remarks he had made during the funeral of the three assailants.

According to the indictment, Salah praised the attackers saying: "At these moments [we need to stand together] as one house, as one family. We take leave of our martyrs … and express the wish that they join the prophets, the righteous ones and the martyrs. At these moments, may we pray that God increases their value in the heavens in paradise."

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In his defence Salah argued that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran, and did not constitute a direct call to violence. Salah's lawyer also explained that the remarks were made within the context of a religious sermon and urged Israel "to not prosecute him for his faith and beliefs".

Haifa Magistrate's Court Judge Shlomo Benjo conceded that some of Salah's remarks at the funeral had been mistranslated but still ruled that the translation errors did not alter the general meaning of his comments.

"Despite the attempts to give the defendant's statements a religious character, the conclusion is that the accused expressed praise, sympathy and support for the attacks," the judge said in delivering his verdict.

Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen criticised the decision by pointing to the normalisation of incitement to hate and violence in Israeli society.

"In a country where the prime minister, senior ministers and main religious figures incite against the Arab public and its leaders from morning till night, Raed Salah's conviction marks another step in the political persecution of the Arab," Jabareen wrote on Twitter. He explained that the verdict marked "a dangerous erosion of freedom of expression for the leadership and delegitimisation of political and religious activity".

Muhammad Baraka, the head of the Higher Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel, also dismissed the verdict. The "ruling was prepared in advance, and was based on racist foundations and incitement against Arabs," Baraka was quoted as saying in a Turkish news source.

In an interview, Salah's lawyer, Khaled Zabarqa, said that Israel's endless efforts to silence the Palestinian leader was intended to pave the way for the controversial peace plan known as the "deal of the century".

According to Zabarqa, Israel has been planning for the past two years to ban any appearance by Sheikh Salah due to his ability to mobilise Palestinians to reject any Israeli plan intending to terminate Palestinian rights in Jerusalem.

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