RAMALLAH (Reuters) - In a potential blow to President Mahmoud Abbas, a Palestinian appeals court ruled on Wednesday in favor of maintaining parliamentary immunity for his rival Mohammed Dahlan, who has been charged with corruption.
Abbas issued a decree in 2012 stripping Dahlan of his immunity, a move to bring him to trial on the charges. It was also seen as an effort to weaken Dahlan, who lives in exile in Dubai, as a potential challenger for the Palestinian leadership.
Wednesday's decision "reaffirmed the validity of parliamentary immunity for lawmaker Mohammed Dahlan," said Fares Sabaana, the director of media at the Judicial Council.
The ruling goes against a decision by the Palestinian high court in a separate case in which Abbas's decree was upheld.
It increases the likelihood Dahlan will decide to return to the West Bank to clear his name and challenge Abbas.
Abbas's legal adviser, Hassan Al-Awri, said the presidency would abide by the court's decision.
"We respect decisions by the Palestinian judiciary on the principle of the independence of the judicial authority," he said in a statement.
There was no immediate comment by Dahlan.
Hani Al-Masri, a political analyst in the West Bank, told Reuters the decision underlined the strength of the Palestinian justice system and raised problems for Abbas.
"Certainly this weakens the president (Abbas), it is bad news for the president," said Masri.
"The court's decision strengthens Dahlan and sends a message that the campaign against him was wrong."
Dahlan, a former senior official in Fatah, the Western-backed party headed by Abbas, fell out of favor in 2011.
He is now seen as a strong candidate for president if Abbas ever steps down or decides to call elections. The last parliamentary election was held in 2006 and the last presidential vote in 2005.
Dahlan, 53, had argued it was not up to the president to strip him of immunity but the Palestinian parliament, known as the legislative council, which has not convened in full since 2007.
(Reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Andrew Roche)