A Hamas court convicted four men Monday in the abduction and slaying last year of a pro-Palestinian Italian activist in Gaza, sentencing two of the suspects to 35 years in prison each, a judicial official said.
But the court stopped short of handing down the death penalty because the slain activist's parents had urged Hamas authorities against it, according to lawyers representing the family.
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Vittorio Arrigoni was kidnapped and strangled to death in March 2011 by hardline Muslim extremists. The body of the 36-year-old, who had been living in Gaza and helping Palestinians 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 seized the coastal territory in 2007.
According to the judicial official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the verdicts were not officially announced, the court held 11 hearings in the case.
Two of the suspects – Mahmoud al-Salfiti, 28, and Tamer al-Hasasna, 27 – were convicted of murder and kidnapping, and sentenced each to 35 years in prison with hard labor. They got 25 years as the maximum sentence for murder under Gaza law and another 10 years for kidnapping.
A third man, 24-year-old Khader Jram, was sentenced to 10 years for participating in the kidnapping. And Amer Abu Ghouleh, 23, was given a year's sentence for sheltering fugitives, said the judicial official.
Two other men who helped kill Arrigoni 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 the two suspects convicted of murder – al-Salfiti and al-Hasasna – worked for Hamas' interior ministry. Al-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 put a halt to similar violent crimes and hostage-taking 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 11 military court sessions in the case. The Gaza rights group, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, represented Arrigoni's family. They were not immediately available for comment Monday.
Arrigoni was widely recognizable in Gaza for his black cap, pipe, tattoos of Palestinian icons, his colorful Palestinian-flag bracelets and his sense of humor. 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.
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