Demands are growing to release Palestinian legislator Marwan Barghouti, and some 6,500 other Palestinian prisoners, as part of the “road map” peace negotiations. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas warned that without a large-scale prisoner release, the cease-fire “will collapse.” Some 2,000 Palestinians, including the families of prisoners, marched on July 6 in Gaza City, chanting slogans like, “No peace without the release of all detainees.”

The prisoner issue has gained resonance because the key Palestinian groups that worked for months to bring about a cessation of attacks on Israelis comprises the very people Israel has jailed for “acts of terror.” Barghouti, in particular, was the main player in negotiating a truce. Barghouti’s lawyer Jawad Boulus said he and other attorneys acted as go-betweens, passing messages from Barghouti’s cell to other Palestinian contacts.

Barghouti is a well-respected and popular Palestinian leader, who wrote in a 2002 Washington Post op-ed, “I am not a terrorist, but neither am I a pacifist. I am simply a regular guy from the Palestinian street advocating only what every other oppressed person has advocated – the right to help myself in the absence of help from anywhere else.

“I led delegations of Palestinians in meetings with Israeli parliamentarians to promote mutual understanding and cooperation. I still seek peaceful coexistence between the equal and independent countries of Israel and Palestine based on full withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and a just resolution to the plight of Palestinian refugees pursuant to UN resolutions. I do not seek to destroy Israel but only to end its occupation of my country.”

Barghouti, who is standing trial in Israel on terrorism charges, said he had no faith that the court could reach an objective verdict. He refuses to conduct a formal defense because he does not recognize the Israeli court’s right to try him.

“This is a political trial – the attorney general has decided, the security services have decided. You can’t decide anything,” he told the court on July 14.

The trial, which opened in April, was adjourned until August, when the prosecution is to sum up its case. Barghouti was arrested 15 months ago.

During the proceedings Barghouti also said comments on his case by Israel’s attorney general were improper, and one of the three Israeli judges agreed.

Barghouti said a letter that Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in June calling Barghouti a “first-rate architect of terrorism” prejudged the trial’s outcome.

“Not one of the witnesses mentioned me by name,” Barghouti said. “No one said Marwan Barghouti is the architect of these attacks, but Rubinstein said Marwan Barghouti is a mass murderer and architect of terrorism.”

Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group, demonstrated in solidarity with Barghouti the day of his trial. Holding signs that read, “Barghouti to talks table, not to jail,” the protestors were not allowed in the court’s hall, but got media coverage.

Gush Shalom leader Uri Avnery told journalists, “Release of prisoners would create such an enormous good-will. And Barghouti, who helped the cease-fire come about, could do so much more if he were out.”

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