A Border Police officer who shot and killed an autistic Palestinian man in Jerusalem’s Old City in May 2020 after mistaking him for a terrorist has been charged with reckless manslaughter, the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department announced on Thursday.
Iyad Halak, 32, was shot and killed while heading to a local special education school. After a policeman mistook a phone in his hands for a gun in the tense and charged Old City, two officers chased him through the streets. They cornered him in a garbage room and an officer opened fire twice, killing Halak as he lay on the ground.
“The policeman fired at the late Iyad Halak even as the deceased did not hold anything in his hands, nor did he perform any action that justified that he be shot. As such, he must be put on trial,” prosecutors said in a statement.
While two officers were present on the scene — the officer who fired and his commander — only the shooter will be tried. The officer, 20, has not been publicly named.
“The decision indicates a complete lack of understanding by PIID,” the defendant’s lawyers, Efrat Nahmani-Bar and Alon Porat, said in a statement. “A situation in which an officer acts in good faith in an operational event and finds himself in the defendant’s chair is an intolerable situation.”
According to the Justice Ministry, Halak aroused suspicion with unspecified unusual behavior during his walk to work in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 30, 2020. He was wearing a face mask and black gloves at the time of the incident to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
A police officer monitoring the area for security threats announced that a “terrorist” was in the vicinity, setting off a chase by the officer and his Border Police commander. Halak fled through the streets.
During the pursuit, the two police officers called out to Halak in Hebrew and Arabic to stop and identify himself, but the autistic Palestinian man, apparently terrified, continued to run. The commander fired two bullets at Halak’s legs, missing him, according to the PIID.
Halak fled to an indoor sanitation facility, where a janitor, a Waqf worker, and a woman with whom he was previously acquainted were standing, the Justice Ministry unit said. Media reports have identified the woman as his caretaker, Warda Abu Hadid, who had been walking with him to his place of work.
The two officers followed Halak into the garbage room. One, now the defendant, shot Halak in the lower abdomen, prosecutors said.
More and more police entered the room. Officers on the scene then asked Halak about a gun they believed he may have been carrying.
Halak “got up slightly, pointed at the woman he knew and murmured something,” the indictment said. The officers then directed the question at Abu Hadid. “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.
Abu Hadid described a slightly different scene to Israeli media in the aftermath of the shooting. “I’m with her, I’m with her!” Abu Hadid said Halak cried out on the ground after being shot for the first time.
In an account she gave to the online magazine Local Call, she described pleading for several minutes in the garbage room with police, telling them to check Halak’s identification for proof of his disabled status.
“Suddenly, they fired three bullets at him, in front of my eyes,” Abu Hadid said in an interview with Channel 13. “I shouted, ‘Don’t shoot him.’ They didn’t listen, they didn’t want to hear.”
If convicted on charges of reckless manslaughter, the officer could serve up to 12 years in prison.
The shooting officer’s commander, who participated in the chase and was present at the shooting, will not be charged.
Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh called the reckless manslaughter charge “an infuriating and contemptible charge that enables the murder of any Palestinian who displeases a police officer or a soldier.”
“The end of the occupation will be justice for Iyad,” he added.
Halak’s family has criticized the charges for not going far enough. The family has also been critical of the slow pace of the investigation; the planned charges were first announced in November but were not formally pressed for another seven months.
“They’ve destroyed our family,” sobbed Rana Halak, as she spoke to reporters after her meeting with prosecutors in Jerusalem last November. “Tell me, how did an autistic boy ever harm anyone?”
Joint List parliamentarian Aida Touma-Suleiman also criticized what she deemed to be overly lax charges of reckless manslaughter on Thursday.
“This is an example of covering up the iniquity conducted by the criminal justice system in occupied East Jerusalem. The killing was not done recklessly. It was done through a sick view of how much the life of a Palestinian man is worth,” Touma-Suleiman said.
Despite numerous cameras visible at the scene, there was no video evidence either of the chase or of the shooting itself, PIID has said.
“The shooting incident took place inside a compound belonging to the Jerusalem municipality and administered by a private cleaning firm. The cameras within were not connected to electricity… which is why there is no documentation of the shooting incident itself,” PIID said last year.
On the other hand, investigators also said they took into account the complex and tense atmosphere of the Old City, as well as the fact that the officers had received immediate reports of a terrorist in the area.