OFER MILITARY BASE, West Bank // An Israeli military court sentenced a prominent Palestinian protest leader to 13 months in jail for urging youths to throw stones at Israeli soldiers.
But Bassem Al Tamimi, 45, walked free from the courtroom because he had spent that period of time in jail awaiting trial. He was conditionally released last month to see his ailing mother.
The activist led weekly marches in his West Bank village of Nabi Saleh for years to protest against Jewish settlers seizing a well for their own use, mirroring other protests in rural Palestinian villages.
He was convicted mostly on the basis of a confession given by a 15-year-old interrogated without a lawyer being present.
The case against him sparked criticism from the European Union over Israel's policy of imprisoning Palestinian protest leaders.
Many of those protests turn into clashes between stone-throwing youths and Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Typically, youths appear to act on their own, but protest leaders do little to halt them.
Al Tamimi said the sentence highlighted the "absurdity" of the case, matching exactly the time he spent in prison before his 85-year-old mother suffered a stroke. He said the case demonstrated also that he was at the mercy of statements taken from vulnerable youths who could be interrogated by Israeli forces.
"Any child who is threatened could say my name in any matter, and I'll go back to prison," Al Tamimi said after the trial.
The Israeli military was not immediately available for comment.
Amnesty International has called Al Tamimi a "prisoner of conscience".
He is among several protest leaders arrested in recent years for organising what Israel defines as illegal demonstrations. Rights groups have said that the arrests are an attempt to stifle expression. Those cases also relied on confessions extracted from minors.
In Al Tamimi's case, evidence was chiefly taken from a confession by a teenage relative who was arrested after being caught throwing stones.
Two men interrogated him for about three hours. He was not allowed to see a lawyer. His interrogator, speaking in broken, heavily accented Arabic, shouts at the sleepy minor, according to an edited version of the videotaped interrogation. Several times, an interrogator tells the minor he was throwing stones at the behest of protest leaders, including Al Tamimi, and urges him to agree.
Israeli officials claim the interrogations are necessary to reduce violence, and said that Palestinians are offered fair trials. Most Palestinians take plea bargains instead of going to trial, seeing it as a lengthy process where only a tiny number are exonerated.