EU rebukes Israel for convicting Palestinian protester

Baroness Ashton in Brussels, July 2010 Israel has called Lady Ashton's "interference" highly improper

The European Union has criticised Israel for convicting an organiser of weekly Palestinian protests against the West Bank separation barrier.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was "deeply concerned" about Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, who now faces several years in prison.

She said he was a "human rights defender" committed to non-violent protest.

Israel's foreign ministry described her statement as highly improper.

'Legitimate right'

Jailed since December, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh was convicted by a military court on Tuesday of inciting protests in the West Bank village of Bilin and of participating in the protests without a legal permit.

Lady Ashton expressed deep concern "that the possible imprisonment of Mr Abu Rahmeh is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest against the existence of the separation barriers in a non-violent manner," her office said.

"The EU considers the route of the barrier where it is built on Palestinian land to be illegal," it quoted her as saying in a statement.

Her statement drew a sharp rebuke from Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, who said that any "interference with a transparent legal procedure is highly improper".

Sentencing is scheduled for next month, after which Abu Rahmeh - a 39-year-old schoolteacher - will appeal the conviction, his lawyer has said.

Weekly protests

Activists have been protesting against the barrier for five years in what they say are mostly peaceful demonstrations. Some demonstrations have been attended by stone-throwing Palestinian youths.

West Bank barrier

Protesters run from tear gas during a demonstration in Bilin, July 2010

Israel says it considers the protests to be "violent and illegal". Israeli security services have fired tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and on occasion live rounds at protesters.

There have been two fatalities among protesters and an American peace activist suffered brain damage after being hit by a tear gas canister.

Israel says the barrier was established to stop Palestinian suicide bombers entering from the West Bank.

But Palestinians point to its route, winding deep into the West Bank around Israeli settlements - which are illegal under international law - and say it is a way to grab territory they want for their future state.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued an advisory ruling that the barrier was illegal and should be removed where it did not follow the Green Line, the internationally recognised boundary between the West Bank and Israel.

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