The defense team for an IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing a disarmed Palestinian attacker said Thursday that the army tried to convince the soldier’s father to fire his attorneys and drop a planned appeal because the military is afraid of what would come to light during the process.
On Wednesday night, Channel 2 news broadcast a recording of Col. Guy Hazut, the commander of the Kfir Brigade, attempting to convince Elor Azaria’s father not to pursue an appeal.
Last week, the Jaffa Military Court convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria, 20, of manslaughter in the fatal shooting last March of Palestinian stabber Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron. Azaria’s sentencing is scheduled for January 15.
Channel 2 on Tuesday reported the fact of the secret conversation between Charlie Azaria and Hazut, who commands the brigade Azaria serves in, drawing a swift denial from the IDF. On Wednesday, it broadcast the conversation. Azaria’s attorneys, who were not invited to the meeting, said Thursday that the recording proves the army is attempting to interfere in the legal process.
“It is blatant and crude interference that was done at a very late stage after the same battalion commander didn’t pick up the phone even once to the soldier or his family to ask how they are for 10 months, and now he calls them up as though he wants to help them,” Azaria’s lawyer Ilan Katz told Israel Radio.
“I don’t believe that the officer acted on his own accord,” he said, noting that Hazut had offered Charlie Azaria a meeting the very same evening with senior IDF figures.
“In my opinion, they are very worried that appeal process will first of all reveal the wrong and tendentious conviction, and then the evidence for an acquittal will be brought up again, and the faulty behavior of the chain of command, and they want to avoid that,” Katz said.
The IDF has denied that the meeting was about the sentencing, charging that the conversation was about offering possible assistance to the family.
But in the recorded conversation, Hazut implies that the best option for the convicted soldier would be to drop any appeal and consider replacing the defense team.
Katz noted that since, during the meeting, Hazut pointed out that he can’t guarantee anything, it showed that the real purpose was to try and convince Charlie Azaria to abandon the defense team.
“There is a way to make offers,” Katz said. “We would have been very happy if even once the chief military prosecutor would have bothered to tell his people to meet with us. That is how things are done in a proper system.”
He confirmed he was willing to negotiate with the army, but only through the proper legal channels.
In the meeting, Azaria insisted that his son did nothing wrong and should serve no jail time, while Hazut stressed that the best course of action would be to not appeal the verdict.
“I don’t want my son at the age of 21 to have manslaughter on his record while he was serving the state and did nothing [wrong],” Azaria responded in the recording.
“I can tell you,” said Hazut, “that the chances of that type of appeal being accepted… are very weak.”
Azaria asked whether the army could release his son from jail and send him home, which he presented as a condition for accepting any kind of deal to drop the appeal.
Hazut told him there was very little likelihood of that. “I don’t want to mislead you, this will not end without some time in jail. But it is a question of alternatives.”
In a letter to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday morning, Azaria’s attorneys Eyal Besserglick and Katz denounced the meeting, saying it was “crossing a red line.”
“We discovered to our amazement that improper contacts were made by senior IDF persons… to the father of our client in order to cause him to replace his attorney and likewise to refrain from a future appeal in this case, while also making various assurances — things that could seemingly be a criminal offense,” the letter read.
By law, there are two ways Azaria may obtain a pardon. All convicts, including soldiers, can appeal to the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, for a pardon. Soldiers can also turn to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who has the legal power to issue pardons for active-duty personnel.
On Tuesday, Liberman alluded to efforts aimed at resolving the divisive issue, writing on his Facebook page that those calling for an immediate pardon and protesting the conviction should keep quiet, as they were doing more harm to Azaria than good.
“We all know that on one side [of this case] there’s a decorated soldier and on the other there’s a terrorist who came to kill Jews,” Liberman wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.
“We’re doing everything to safeguard both the ethics of the IDF and the soldier Azaria. Anything else only does harm,” he said.
Since the verdict was announced last week, Liberman, who voiced support for Azaria before taking up the Defense Ministry post last year, has called on Israelis to respect the court’s decision and asked the soldier’s attorneys to agree to a deal in which they forgo filing an appeal in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Many right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have called for Azaria to be pardoned, as has former Labor leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union).