After 2.5 years in jail, autistic JCC hoax bomber yet to be evaluated by expert

After 2.5 years in jail, autistic JCC hoax bomber yet to be evaluated by expert

Judge accepts father’s petition to have medical professional examine whether prison treatment appropriate given inmate’s condition, but appointment won’t take place for months

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

The suspect brought for a court hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, under suspicion of Issuing fake bomb threats against Jewish institutions around the world, on March 23, 2017. (Flash90)
The suspect brought for a court hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, under suspicion of Issuing fake bomb threats against Jewish institutions around the world, on March 23, 2017. (Flash90)

Nearly two-and-a-half years into his 10-year sentence for hoaxing US Jewish community centers and other targets with thousands of bomb threats, a 20-year-old American-Israeli convict has yet to be examined by an autism expert to determine if his prison conditions are suitable for his developmental disorder, as required by law.

Since his arrest in March 2017, guards at the Nitzan Prison in Ramle have kept M. — whose name is withheld by a gag order in Israel — inside his cell for 23 hours a day. According to his father, the young inmate is only allowed out into the prison yard with his hands and feet in shackles.

The Israel Prisons Service contends that M. is a danger to himself and others, has tried to escape from custody and managed to call in an additional bomb threat from a prison phone.

However, a state social worker who visited the prison last February determined in her report that the incidents in which M. acted out were autism-related meltdowns triggered by the extreme conditions in which he has been held.

Last month, M.’s father petitioned the Lod District Court demanding that his son be examined by an independent psychiatric expert familiar with autism in order to determine appropriate supervision conditions for his son.

According to the petition, M.’s prison conditions have been examined by various prison officials, but not by a relevant medical expert, despite the Prison Ordinance Law’s requirement that “an inmate be given suitable conditions of supervision as recommended by a prison service physician.”

M., an Israeli-American who was convicted of hoaxing JCCs and other targets around the world with thousands of bomb threats, arrives at the Tel Aviv District Court for his sentencing, on November 22, 2018. (Jacob Magid/ Times of Israel)

Despite the prison service’s response recommending the petition be thrown out, Judge Avraham Yaakov ruled in favor of M.’s father on July 10 and ordered that an examination by a medical expert specializing in autism be scheduled within a week.

However, M.’s parents learned that the consult had been booked for the end of October, nearly three months after Yaakov’s order.

Some two weeks later, as punishment for unspecified behavior that the prison service claimed had endangered himself and other inmates, M. — whose autism diagnosis is well documented in the rulings against him — was sent to 48 hours in solitary confinement during which he was tied to his bed. He was also stripped of his daily phone calls for two weeks and visits from his family were put on hold for a month.

M.’s parents had arrived at the prison for their weekly visit on August 1 only to be told that they would not be allowed in. Later that day, one of M.’s fellow inmates called and notified them of their son’s punishment.

M.’s father subsequently submitted a new urgent petition, demanding that prison guards cease their disciplinary actions against his son and move the October scheduled consult to an earlier date.

The prison service in response maintained that nothing in M.’s conviction ruling — which determined the 20-year-old to have been responsible for his actions despite his developmental disorder — bars it from the disciplinary tactics that it has taken.

Illustrative photo of police tape at the JCC in Nashville, Tennessee, after the community center received a bomb threat on January 9, 2017. (Screenshot: The Tennessean)

Judge Ido Druyan Gamlielle ruled last week to reject the father’s latest petition and ordered the prison service to act “at its own discretion.”

M.’s father told The Times of Israel that he received a phone call from his son on Wednesday, for the first time in weeks, during which the young man told him that the supervision had become so invasive that he preferred being placed in solitary confinement.

“Every psychiatric expert [that has weighed in on this case] has concluded that he shouldn’t be in prison because he has autism, and yet they continue torturing my son,” he said.

Last December, M.’s attorney Yoram Sheftel filed a Supreme Court appeal against his client’s June 2018 conviction, arguing that there had been substantial flaws in Israeli authorities’ interrogation and prosecution of his client.

G and S, the parents of alleged bomb hoaxer M, at their home in Ashkelon, April 26, 2017 (Times of Israel staff)

The 52-page appeal begins by pointing out that M. “is the only individual with autism currently serving in Israeli prison, let alone who has been in detention for nearly two years.” It goes on to claim that the investigators who questioned M. did not take into account his autism diagnosis and were not qualified to interrogate such a suspect. The appeal also suggested that the conviction was based on an alleged admission of guilt made by M. following his arrest that authorities have yet to produce.

Immediately after he was taken into custody, M.’s parents and defense counsel informed authorities that the suspect had been diagnosed with autism and was required by law to be interrogated by an investigator authorized to question individuals with special needs. In addition, the law requires that such a suspect to be interrogated in the presence of a parent.

Both of those legal provisions were violated by authorities, Sheftel charged, arguing that those alleged failures invalidated the entire investigation against his client.

M. was found guilty of hundreds of counts of extortion, publishing false information that caused panic, computer offenses, and money laundering, among other charges. In November, M. was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined NIS 60,000 ($16,068).

Attorney Yoram Sheftel speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 1, 2016. (Flash90)

Authorities say M. made over 2,000 threatening calls to mostly American schools, hospitals, and Jewish community centers from 2015 to 2017, using an online calling service that disguised his voice and allowed him to hide his identity. He also targeted hundreds of airlines and airports, malls, and police stations, in the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Britain, and tried to extort Republican State Senator Ernesto Lopez from Delaware.

In addition to the bomb threats, M. offered his extortion services through an online black market. Court documents unsealed in August linked him to a post on the now-shuttered illicit marketplace AlphaBay, advertising a “School Email Bomb Threat Service.” The ad offered to send customized threats to schools for $30, plus a surcharge if the buyer seeks to have someone framed.

His threats caused fighter jets to scramble, planes to dump fuel and make emergency landings, schools to evacuate and numerous other chaotic consequences. In some cases, he allegedly threatened to execute children he claimed to be holding hostage. Police also found hundreds of photos and videos of child pornography on his computer.

The hoax bomb threats, which came in the midst of a far-right surge in the US, sent a chill through Jewish communities, and raised fears of anti-Semitism.

Sheftel’s appeal argued that the court “ignored or dismissed without any real explanation… the unequivocal determination of the Hadassah Medical Center, where M. was examined by five independent experts who determined that his client was telling the truth when he explained that he had carried out the thousands of hoax threats because he was under the impression that he was ‘causing fun for others'” — for example, children who were able to leave school due to the warnings he phoned in.

An American-Israeli Jewish teenager, accused of making dozens of anti-Semitic bomb threats in the United States and elsewhere, is escorted by police as he leaves a courtroom in Rishon Lezion on March 23, 2017. (AFP/Jack Guez)

A hearing on the appeal was held in April, but no date has been given by the court for when a decision will be handed down.

In addition to the prison sentence in Israel, M. has been indicted on hate crimes charges by the US Department of Justice that would carry a hefty prison term there.

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