Thousands rally in Philadelphia over former Black Panther on Death Row

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Hundreds of anti-death penalty protesters from across America and from Europe converged on downtown Philadelphia yesterday to support the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and radio journalist who is on death row for the killing of a police officer more than two decades ago.

The rally, attended by several politicians, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was called to coincide with a state appeals court hearing that Abu-Jamal had been expected to attend. State officials announced at the last moment, however, that he would not be in court and would remain in solitary confinement.

Sentenced to death in 1981 for the shooting of police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal has long attracted the attention of the anti-death penalty movement, especially in Europe. His writings from prison have drawn praise from activists, foreign politicians and celebrities. In Germany yesterday, supporters of the free-Mumia campaign installed a mock electric chair outside the US Embassy in Berlin.

Yesterday's hearing, before Common Pleas Judge Pamela Dembe, represented one of Abu-Jamal's final chances of escaping the execution chamber. He has one last possibility of appeal in the federal court system and his options with the state courts have also been virtually exhausted.

In a last attempt for relief at the state level, however, Abu-Jamal's lawyers asked Judge Dembe to allow for a second post-conviction hearing for an eventual appeal.

Last month, a federal judge refused to hear testimony from a new witness who has claimed that he was hired by the Mafia to kill Mr Faulkner.

While most of the protesters were forced to remain behind barricades outside Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center, the Rev. Jackson was among a few who made it into the courtroom. "In the case of Mumia, there is no absolute certainty that he did the killing in the first place," he said.

There was fury, meanwhile, that the state had forced Abu-Jamal to remain in his cell at a Pittsburgh high-security prison, preventing him from attending the hearing. Officials said they had the made the decision because there was no space for him in any of the holding cells in Philadelphia. It would have been the first appearance by Abu-Jamal in a courtroom in over five years.

Internet sites dedicated to assuring his freedom have been appealing to supporters to attend the hearing.