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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 23:06 GMT
Protests over Israeli Arab MP's trial
Supporters of Azmi Bishara outside the court in Nazareth
Supporters gathered outside the court in Nazareth
Hundreds of protesters expressed anger on Wednesday at the trial of Israel's most prominent Arab MP, accused of voicing support for militants.

This is a political trial, it has no legal basis. They are trying to delegitimise me with slander

Azmi Bishara
Politicians from Britain, Norway and Sweden were reported to be among a group of protesters who gathered outside a courtroom in the town of Nazareth where MP Azmi Bishara was on trial.

Mr Bishara, 45, could be jailed for up to three years for allegedly making statements in support of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

He is also charged with organising illegal trips for Israeli Arabs to Syria, and of incitement over remarks he made in Syria backing popular resistance against Israel.

His supporters waved Palestinian flags and sang nationalist songs outside the courtroom.

Immunity lifted

He had called for a "united Arab policy to enable the Palestinians to persevere with their resistance."

Azmi Bishara
Bishara claims that Israel are trying to exclude Arabs from the political process

When he made the comments, he was standing beside the leader of the Hezbollah movement, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

The Israeli government lifted Mr Bishara's parliamentary immunity so that he could be prosecuted.

Mr Bishara, 45, a Christian university professor, has strongly criticised the Israeli government for what he said was a politically motivated trial.

"What the Israeli right wing is trying to do ... is to redraw the limits of Israeli democracy so that Arab patriotic or Arab national, democratic or progressive forces will be excluded," he was quoted as saying.

A smaller rally was also held in Gaza City, where about 200 Palestinians turned out to show support for the politician.

The case has raised international concern over the rights of minority Arabs in Israel, correspondents say.

"I think it is the most elementary right of the Palestinians to resist occupation," Mr Bishara, accompanied to court by a personal bodyguard, told the Reuters news agency.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"The Israeli's are encouraged by the initiative"
Gideon Meir, Israeli foreign ministry
"We welcome any peace initiative"
See also:

20 May 99 | Israel elections
Putting Arabs on the map
27 Feb 02 | Middle East
Three Palestinian gunmen killed
25 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israeli president seeks Saudi talks
26 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel jails dissenting soldiers
27 Feb 02 | Middle East
What is in the Saudi peace initiative?
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