Marwan Barghouti: Jailed for murder, but still running for President

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The Independent Online

Dominating the small and, by now, permanently crowded Ramallah office from where his friend Saad Nimr runs the Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti is a smiling poster portrait of Yasser Arafat carrying aloft a picture of the jailed Fatah leader in handcuffs. Until last Wednesday, the poster was just one among many used by the campaign. But then Mr Barghouti caused the biggest sensation of his political career by reversing his earlier backing for Mahmoud Abbas as the future Palestinian president and deciding to run for the job himself.

Dominating the small and, by now, permanently crowded Ramallah office from where his friend Saad Nimr runs the Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti is a smiling poster portrait of Yasser Arafat carrying aloft a picture of the jailed Fatah leader in handcuffs. Until last Wednesday, the poster was just one among many used by the campaign. But then Mr Barghouti caused the biggest sensation of his political career by reversing his earlier backing for Mahmoud Abbas as the future Palestinian president and deciding to run for the job himself.

For the past 72 hours, Mr Barghouti has had the eerie experience of watching from the cramped Beersheba prison cell to which he is confined for 23 hours a day as this extraordinary drama unfolded. And that, at least, he has been easily able to do. The low ceiling means, according to the campaigners for his release, that he suffers from chronic backache through not being able to sit up straight on either bunk bed. When he exercises in a small tarpaulin-covered yard his legs and arms are both manacled, the campaigners say. But beside the solace of books (he has recently read Bill Clinton's memoirs, and, more improbably, a biography of Margaret Thatcher, beside a wide range of philosophy, politics and literature) he has television, radio and newspapers, not only in Arabic but English and Hebrew, in both of which he has achieved fluency during his periods in jail.

The very fact of his being in jail is likely to be one of several planks in the campaign of his opponents over the next five weeks. Not, of course, because they think he deserves to be there; no Palestinian politician would think, at least in public, of doing other than joining in his own contention that he was handed down his five life sentences in June for involvement in the killing of five victims of militant attacks after a "show trial" in an Israeli court. Rather his colleagues in Fatah who support Mr Abbas, the organisation's official candidate, have begun to question how a man in jail can expect to run the Palestinian Authority.

While many of his supporters among rank-and-file Palestinians believe, in the face of resolute Israeli denials from Ariel Sharon down, this intellectually sharp and charismatic man will be released if he wins, those closest to him emphatically reject the suggestion that seeking his release played any part in his decision to run.

Three weeks ago, in her spotlessly clean apartment in a small block opposite the Chinese legation in Ramallah, Fadwa Barghouti, herself a lawyer and Fatah activist, freely acknowledged that as a wife and mother of his four children, she would of course like to see him back home. But Mr Nimr said on Thursday that, contrary to widespread media reports, Mrs Barghouti had actually been of the original opinion that he should not run. Instead, he said, Mr Barghouti was perfectly capable of appointing a prime minister and perhaps a vice-president to represent him in the day-to-day running of the PA.

Then, touching obliquely on the comparison that most elevates Mr Barghouti as a candidate, he added: "After all Nelson Mandela was able to lead, if not a state, at least the biggest party in South Africa while he was in prison."

Marwan Barghouti was born on 6 June 1958 in the village of Kobar near Ramallah, growing up as "a naughty and rebellious boy", according to his younger brother, Muqbel, and joining Fatah at the precocious age of 15. In 1978 he was arrested and imprisoned for more than four years for membership of what was still a banned organisation. He passed his high school diploma in prison and married Fadwa six months before his discharge. It was Mr Barghouti who, having subsequently graduated in history and political science, and in 1998 taken an MA in international relations from Birzeit University, persuaded his wife to acquire a formal education herself.

Like many of his "young guard" generation of activists who came of age politically in the occupied territories while the older PLO figures such as the 69-year-old Mr Abbas were in exile in Lebanon and Tunis, he became a leader of the first intifada in the West Bank, being deported to Jordan from where he returned after seven years in 1994 following the Oslo accords.

By now a staunch advocate of a two-state solution, he strongly supported the accords, fostering in the process some close contacts with the Israeli peace movement. Despite all that has happened since he has remained a strong and apparently sincere advocate of a negotiated settlement with Israel.

Although he became a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996, it was the second intifada, starting in September 2000, that propelled him to prominence. He has always said he was a "political" rather than a "military" man, but his role in urging the escalation of the intifada and, by extension, the growing importance of the Fatah-linked militias of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades is hardly in doubt.

Which means that the four-year-old uprising, which Mr Abbas has been outspoken in decrying, is likely to be a central, perhaps the central, issue of the campaign. According to Mr Nimr, Mr Barghouti will stick by his position that attacks on soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank are legitimate, while those on civilians on the Israeli side of the pre-1967 "green line" are not. "If the Israelis can negotiate while they are an occupying power, then the Palestinians can negotiate while they continue to resist," says Mr Nimr.

Israeli officials insist, however, that in the first two years of the intifada he effectively condoned attacks on both sides of the green line. Having survived an Israeli attempt on his life in 2001, when his bodyguard's car was hit by a missile, he was arrested in April 2002 at the height of the last four years of conflict. Mr Barghouti refused to recognise the court as legitimate, insisting that "though I am the one in chains it is not I who am on trial".

The now famous picture of him, bearded and raising his bound hands above his head, became a totem of the uprising, especially after his campaigners' claim that he had been tortured in prison. But the court's verdict was unequivocal: "In practice it has been proven beyond all doubt that the accused took part in, and headed, murderous activity which aimed at striking innocents."

Before the intifada, he had campaigned against corruption, several times clashing with Arafat in the process. But Tayseer Nasrullah, a long-time Fatah associate from Nablus, who strongly urged Mr Barghouti not to run as a candidate in the 9 January election but to bide his time, recalled this week a conversation after the uprising began, with Mr Barghouti and another subsequently jailed comrade, Husam Khader. They urged that the intifada should also be mobilised against corruption and in favour of overdue internal reforms within the PA. "We told him the intifada has two wings. It cannot fly with one." To the disappointment of his two friends, says Mr Nasrullah, he disagreed and stopped speaking out about corruption. Nevertheless, Mr Nimr said this week that Mr Barghouti will indeed revive his stated goal of rooting out corruption, adding with some delicacy: "He is the heir of Yasser Arafat in his political views but not in his administrative approach."

Despite his disagreement over the elections with Mr Barghouti, Mr Nasrullah decries what he sees as a vindictive attempt by some "old guard" members of Fatah to expel him from the organisation in which he has spent all his political life. In any Western political culture, of course, he would be certainly cast out for standing against his own party. But Mr Nasrullah points out that Fatah members have stood in the past in PLC elections with impunity.

Which nevertheless leaves some even in the "young guard" of Fatah baffled by Mr Barghouti's spectacular change of heart over less than a week, particularly since the threat that he might run may have helped to extract a promise from Mr Abbas to hold the first internal elections in Fatah since 1989 - a potential body-blow to its fossilised old guard. Some of his critics, such as the Jenin al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade leader Zacharia Zubeidi, have even cited what they claim was his unpresidential indecisiveness, as a reason for supporting Mr Abbas.

Beyond saying that Mr Barghouti was deeply dismayed by the "celebratory" mood which appeared to infect much of the international community after Arafat's death, Mr Nimr said this week that doubters will have to wait until the Electoral Commission allows publication of the mission statement he drafted with his wife and lawyer in prison on Wednesday for a full explanation.

Occasionally, Israeli commentators among others have suggested that Mr Barghouti is the one credible figure who could command a just peace settlement because of his street popularity and might be released for just that purpose. Whether his release is likely while Ariel Sharon is Prime Minister is, to say the least, a matter of doubt. It is also far from certain that Mr Barghouti, for all his street popularity, can defeat Fatah's still potentially formidable machine.

But provided that he withstands the pressure to stand down before the mid-December deadline for candidates to withdraw, his entry has ensured that the election will be about something real.

It will test whether the Palestinian public still believes in an armed intifada as the means of ending the occupation and how many, despairing of an imminent peace settlement, are now more interested in a period of calm and the prospect of some improvement in their desperate economic plight that Mr Abbas appears to hold out. Above all, it should test whether the Palestinian electorate believes that Marwan Barghouti's time has come.


Born: 6 June 1958 in the village of Kobar, near Ramallah, in the West Bank.

Family: Married to Fadwa Barghouti; four children: al-Qassam, Ruba, Sharaf and Arab.

Education: Educated in Israeli prisons, where he completed his high school matriculation exams and learned Hebrew. After his release, in 1983 he entered Birzeit University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Art's degree in history and political science, after 11 years of interrupted schooling, in 1994. He was awarded an MA in international relations from Birzeit in 1998.

Career: Joined Fatah, the principal Palestinian liberation movement, at age 15. Arrested in 1978, he spent the next 10 years in and out of Israeli prisons and in exile. Elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996. A leader of the second intifada, he was convicted, in 2002, of five counts of murder.

He says...: "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."

They say...: "The five people who were killed in these attacks that he ordered will not return to life. The widows and orphans will not get their loved ones back. But at least justice was done [in sentencing him to life imprisonment]." - David Saranga, spokesman for Israeli Foreign Ministry