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Death Row stand-off stirs racial tensions Abu-Jamal hearings stir racial tensions

Defence lawyers and human rights campaigners will make a final effort this week to secure a new trial for a noted radical black activist whose scheduled execution next month threatens a race relations flashpoint.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, sympathiser of the radical Move group and erstwhile radio talk show commentator, was convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer 14 years ago.

If all his appeals fail, Abu- Jamal will die by lethal injection in a Pennsylvania prison on 17 August. For the state authorities, that is just deserts for a cop killer. But for the growing legion of Abu-Jamal's supporters, he is merely the victim of a race-driven travesty of justice.

Now 41, Abu-Jamal has been on Death Row since 1982, when he was found guilty of shooting to death Daniel Faulkner, a white policeman who had arrested his brother for a traffic offence, on 9 December 1981.

Ballistic evidence and an alleged confession helped convict him. But Abu-Jamal's attorneys say key witnesses who saw another man running from the crime scene and identified by some as the real killer, were never called to testify.

These same conflicting arguments are now being played out one last time in retrial hearings in Philadelphia, to the accompaniment of noisy pro- Abu-Jamal demonstrators at the heavily guarded courthouse and protests from Hollywood, the labour movement, black members of Congress and European sympathisers.

But although Leonard Weinglass, the chief defence lawyer, is optimistic of securing a delay, the circumstances of the case have barely changed. The judge is Alfred Sabo - hardliner and former member of Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police - who has handed down more death sentences than any other judge in the state. By all accounts he is giving defence lawyers as short a shrift now as he did then.

But as Abu-Jamal's fight for life moves towards a climax, tensions are palpably rising. At a time when the OJ Simpson case is generating as much heat as ever, his own case threatens to reinforce suspicions that the justice system is tilted against blacks and minorities.

Abu-Jamal has done nothing to lessen such a belief with his book Live From Death Row, a collection of commentaries and essays from his cell at the maximum security Huntingdon prison in southern Pennsylvania, describing life on Death Row.

But what propelled the case to the front pages was the advent of a Republican governor after last autumn's election. Tom Ridge is a strong supporter of capital punishment. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania carried out its first execution since the 1960s. Abu-Jamal's could be the next.