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21 months after shooting, trial of officer who killed Palestinian with autism begins

Iyad Halak, 32, was gunned down by an officer who mistook him for a terrorist in Jerusalem’s Old City; Halak’s mother says delay is due to anti-Palestinian ‘racism’

Family members of Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian who was shot and killed in the Old City of Jerusalem, seen after a court hearing of the border police officer who accused of shooting and killing of Iyad, at the District court in Jerusalem, February 27, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Family members of Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian who was shot and killed in the Old City of Jerusalem, seen after a court hearing of the border police officer who accused of shooting and killing of Iyad, at the District court in Jerusalem, February 27, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The trial of a Border Police officer in the shooting of Iyad Halak, a Palestinian man with autism, in Jerusalem’s Old City opened on Sunday after nearly two years of legal wrangling.

Halak’s death made headlines in Israel and across the world. The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Division probed the shooting and eventually charged one of the two officers who were at the scene with reckless manslaughter.

Around 21 months later, the Border Police officer — whose name is barred from publication — arrived to be tried at Jerusalem’s District Court, masked and surrounded by his associates so as to hide his identity. If convicted, the officer could serve up to 12 years in prison.

A few dozen right-wing and left-wing demonstrators lined the courthouse road on Sunday morning. Extreme-right parliamentarian Itamar Ben-Gvir chanted slogans calling both Halak and his mother Rana “terrorists,” witnesses said. Other right-wing Israelis held signs saying “Leave no soldier behind.”

Rana Halak, overwhelmed by emotion, collapsed on the sidewalk. “It was simply too much for me, and I fainted,” she told The Times of Israel.

The Halak family has criticized the pace of the proceedings, which they call an affront to justice. They have also called for harsher charges against the officer for shooting Halak.

“They’re stringing us along from procedure to procedure. All we want is for the officer who killed our son to be tried. All we want is justice,” Halak said.

According to the Halak family’s lawyer, Khalid Zabarqa, the next hearing will not take place until May 9.

“When a Jew is killed, they take action. But when our son was killed, they delayed and tried to cover it up. This is racism. It creates hatred between the two peoples,” Halak said.

Rana, mother of Iyad Halak, 32, holds his photo at their home in East Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz, May 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Halak said her family had received numerous threatening phone calls. “They curse us and tell us we should die like Iyad. They never let us rest,” she said.

Prosecutors ultimately decided not to prosecute the other officer at the scene, the local Border Police commander. “After examining all the circumstances of the incident, it was decided to close his case, since no criminal offense was apparent in his conduct,” a spokesperson for PIID said in 2020.

On May 30, 2020, Iyad Halak, a resident of Wadi Joz, left his house to go to a special needs school in East Jerusalem. Halak regularly made his way to the school, where he had studied and worked for years.

According to prosecutors, Border Police officers had received warnings that a terrorist was in the area. The officers spotted Halak, who was holding a black cellphone that they mistook for a weapon.

Two officers, one of whom was a Border Police commander, began to chase after Halak, demanding that he identify himself. Halak, apparently terrified, ran away.

The two pursued him through the streets. Despite numerous cameras at the scene, there was no video evidence either of the chase or of the shooting itself, PIID said.

The two officers followed Halak into a garbage room. One, now the defendant, shot Halak in the lower abdomen, prosecutors said.

More and more police entered the room. Officers at the scene then asked Halak about a gun they believed he may have been carrying, according to the indictment.

Halak “got up slightly, pointed at the woman he knew and murmured something,” the indictment said. The officers then directed the question at the woman, his caretaker Warda Abu Hadid, who had been walking with him. “What gun?” she replied.

While this exchange was taking place, the same police officer shot and killed Halak without any apparent justification, prosecutors said.

“While she was responding, and although Iyad was on the ground, injured as a result of the first gunfire, didn’t have anything in his hands and did not do anything to justify it, the suspect shot him in the upper body, causing his death,” the statement said.

The officer’s defense attorneys called the indictment “intolerable.” The defense argues that Halak’s shooter acted in good faith in the tense atmosphere of Jerusalem’s Old City.

“He acted in a fast-paced, stressful operational incident that took only a few seconds against someone identified as a dangerous terrorist armed with a pistol,” the law office of Efrat Nahmani-Bar said in a statement.

“In hindsight, [Halak] turned out to be a man with special needs. But that could not have been foreseen,” the attorneys said.

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