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Ex-top investigator alleges prosecution coverup in police killing of Bedouin man

Former Police Internal Investigations Department head claims that opposition to idea that Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an was a terrorist was removed from official documents by Shai Nitzan

Then-head of the Police Internal Investigations Department Uri Carmel speaks at a police event in Jerusalem, January 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-head of the Police Internal Investigations Department Uri Carmel speaks at a police event in Jerusalem, January 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The former head of the Israel’s police internal affairs unit has reportedly alleged that the State Prosecution tried to bury an investigation into the fatal police shooting of a Bedouin man in 2017 in an attempt to protect the image of law enforcement agencies.

The head of the Police Internal Investigations Department at the time of the shooting, Uri Carmel, has claimed that then-state prosecutor Shai Nitzan tried to silence a dissenting opinion that questioned the official police line that the man was a terrorist, according to a Monday report in the Haaretz daily.

Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police in January 2017, after officers arrived to oversee the demolition of houses, including his own, in Umm al-Hiran, an unrecognized Bedouin village that the state was razing to clear the way for a new Jewish town.

As officers converged on the village, Abu al-Qia’an, a 47-year-old teacher and father of 12, packed a few belongings into his SUV and drove from his house, saying he could not bear to watch it be razed.

Israeli police stand next to a vehicle that crashed into police officers in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Israel Police)

Soon afterward, Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police. He lost control of his car, which accelerated downhill and rammed into a group of officers, killing one of them. He was then shot again by police, who assumed he had rammed the officers intentionally, and died.

In a letter to retired judge David Rozen, the ombudsman of public complaints against state representatives, who is conducting a preliminary probe into the claims of a coverup, Carmel reportedly said that Nitzan’s office removed from official documents any mention of opposition to their position that an internal police investigation not be opened.

According to the letter, in the discussions held at Nitzan’s office, Carmel supported opening an investigation, but in the summaries of the discussions that were later distributed, his opinion was omitted.

Carmel added that members of Nitzan’s office tried to negotiate with him to “change the wording of the Department of Investigations’ positions” on the matter, citing a number of examples where he had specifically raised his concerns and was shot down.

“I am troubled by the fact that there is no orderly expression in the summary of the discussion of the positions expressed on a sensitive and central issue,” Carmel wrote to Nitzan in February 2018, according to documents he handed to Rozen. “This is a matter of first-rate legal, public and human sensitivity, perhaps one of the most sensitive issues I have dealt with in all my years as a lawyer.”

Former State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Carmel also criticized then-police commissioner Roni Alsheich for claiming that the incident was a terror attack while he was “certainly aware” of a range of dissenting opinions, including from the PIID and from the Shin Bet security agency.

In September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the Israeli government’s claim that Abu al-Qia’an was a terrorist.

The apology was the first acknowledgement by a government official that the characterization was wrong, despite a wealth of evidence having previously shown that Abu al-Qia’an was not a terrorist and had not attacked the police. It came a day after a TV report accused police and prosecutors of a cover-up in various cases, including the shooting, in an attempt to avoid tarnishing their name while investigating Netanyahu. This led some to question Netanyahu’s motivations in issuing the apology, especially since he accused police and prosecutors of branding Abu al-Qia’an a terrorist in order “to harm me.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s defense attorneys asked the Jerusalem District Court to throw out three criminal indictments against the premier, claiming law enforcement “invented” the corruption charges.

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

After Netanyahu’s September apology, the Israel Police expressed regret for the first time over the death of Abu al-Qia’an, though it stopped short of apologizing or fully retracting the claim that he was a terrorist.

“We participate in the sorrow of the families over their loss,” a police spokesman said in a brief statement, referring to Abu al-Qia’an and Erez Levi, the officer who was run over by his car, calling their deaths a “regrettable incident.”

Nitzan subsequently said in a series of media appearances that he never called Abu Al-Qia’an a terrorist and had certainly not backed up the police conclusion. He also said Netanyahu was “full of lies” for insinuating that police had tried to cover up their mistake in the case to harm the premier.

Responding to the Monday report on Carmel’s claims, associates of Nitzan told Haaretz that the former state attorney had not yet seen the letter but would “happily” respond if asked to by Rozen.

They added, however: “The state attorney does not function as a rubber stamp that is supposed to accept all the recommendations of the PIID head or any district attorney, without exercising discretion. In this case all the evidence was examined by him carefully and he reached the conclusions stated in his decision based on an analysis of the evidence.”

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