GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A Hamas court convicted four men on Monday of last year's kidnapping and killing of a pro-Palestinian Italian activist in Gaza, sentencing two of the defendants to 35 years in prison, a judicial official said.
Vittorio Arrigoni was kidnapped and strangled to death in March 2011 by hardline Islamic extremists. The body of the 36-year-old, who had been living in Gaza since 2008, was found a day after he was kidnapped and after a video showing him beaten and blindfolded surfaced online.
The killing was the first such incident in Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the coastal territory in 2007.
Two of the defendants — 28-year-old Mahmoud al-Salfiti and 27-year-old Tamer al-Hasasna — were convicted of murder and kidnapping, and each sentenced to 35 years in prison with hard labor, the judicial official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to speak to the media. They got 25 years as the maximum sentence for murder under Gaza law and another 10 years for kidnapping.
A third man, Khader Jram, 24, was sentenced to 10 years for taking part in the kidnapping. Another man, Amer Abu Ghouleh, 23, was given a year's sentence for sheltering fugitives, the official said.
Lawyers from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which represented the activist's family, confirmed the sentences.
The verdict cannot be appealed.
In a statement issued Monday, the rights group said they were "satisfied by the sentences issued by the court, which can be described, under the circumstances surrounding the case, as fair and legitimate, and considers that the murderers of Arrigoni have been effectively tried."
The group said the court stopped short of sentencing the men to death because the slain activist's parents had appealed to Hamas authorities not to impose the death penalty.
Two other men suspected of being involved in Arrigoni's murder died in a gun battle in April last year after Hamas security forces stormed their Gaza hideout.
In the online video, Arrigoni's killers had identified themselves as a hardline group called "Monotheism and Holy War" and demanded the release of two of their leaders in exchange for the Italian.
Arrigoni's death was particularly chilling because al-Salfiti and al-Hasasna worked for Hamas' Interior Ministry. Salfiti was posted at a checkpoint near where Arrigoni lived, allowing him to closely monitor the Italian activist's movements.
The slaying also deeply embarrassed Gaza's Hamas rulers. Part of Hamas' appeal to Palestinians was their promise to bring a halt to the violent crime and kidnapping that plagued the crowded territory when it was run by their rivals, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.
One of Hamas' first acts after seizing power was to force the release of a BBC reporter, Alan Johnston, held by hardline Gaza militants in 2007.
Arrigoni's slaying also underscored the challenge that Hamas — a deeply conservative militant group — faced from smaller more extremist factions in Gaza that see it as too pragmatic.
Reporters were not allowed to attend the Hamas military court's sessions.
Arrigoni was easily recognizable in Gaza with his black cap, pipe, tattoos of Palestinian icons and his colorful Palestinian-flag bracelets. He rode with Gaza fishermen on small boats, hoping the presence of a Westerner would deter gunfire from nearby patrolling Israeli navy ships imposing a blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory.
He also helped farmers plant wheat close to Gaza's eastern border with Israel, where they often came under fire for defying an Israeli-imposed security zone meant to deter Palestinian militants from approaching the area.
The rights group said it had chosen to represent Arrigoni's family "out of its moral commitment towards international solidarity activists, who may lose their lives because of their support for the rights of Palestinian people."
Arrigoni's family was not immediately available for comment.