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Israeli Arab Lawmaker Loses Parliamentary Immunity - 2001-11-07


Israel's parliament has stripped an Arab lawmaker of his immunity, making it possible for the government to prosecute him on criminal charges. The lawmaker, Azmi Bishara, is accused of incitement against Israel and arranging illegal visits to Syria for Israeli citizens.

The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, voted 61-30 to lift Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara's immunity. It is the first time in the country's history that a member of the Knesset has been stripped of such protection for political statements.

The Israeli attorney general who asked the Knesset to lift Mr. Bishara's immunity is now expected to prosecute him on two charges.

The first relates to a speech he made in Syria, in which he called on Arab countries to support "the Palestinian people's struggle" and praised Hezbollah guerrilla fighters in Lebanon. This is considered incitement against Israel. Mr. Bishara denies the charges, saying he "never incited to violence."

Mr. Bishara also faces charges that he organized trips to Syria for Arab citizens of Israel. While Mr. Bishara is allowed to travel to Syria legally on his diplomatic passport, ordinary citizens are prohibited from visiting a country which is deemed to be "at war" with Israel. Mr. Bishara admits organizing such trips, but says he was acting out of humanitarian concerns, in order to allow Arab citizens of Israel to visit their relatives in Syria.

The lifting of his parliamentary immunity does not mean that Mr. Bishara, a Christian from Nazareth, has to give up his seat in the Knesset. But he says the legal challenges against him will, in his words, hamper his political activity.

The Knesset has voted 30 times in the past to lift immunity for members, but all the previous cases involved traffic offenses or alleged crimes such as accepting bribes.

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