A former IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter will have to express “true and real” remorse to have a chance at receiving a pardon from IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, a senior army source said.
“If someone thinks that a [social media] post or journalistic chatter, or even a [public] petition will influence the chief of staff in the slightest, they’re wrong,” the unnamed official told Channel 2 Monday.
“Only one person can affect the chief of staff’s decision, and that’s Sgt. Elor Azaria, who will have to write his request for leniency from the cells of [IDF prison] Jail 4.”
On Sunday, a military appeals court upheld Azaria’s manslaughter conviction and his 18-month prison sentence for killing an incapacitated Palestinian stabber, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, 11 minutes after Sharif had attacked two soldiers with a knife and was shot and disarmed, in the West Bank city of Hebron, on March 24, 2016.
After the court rejected Azaria’s attorneys’ appeal to overturn his conviction, as well as an appeal by the prosecution to make his punishment harsher, politicians and public figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, called for Azaria to be pardoned.
As a soldier, such a pardon could only come from Eisenkot or President Reuven Rivlin, who would only make such a decision with Eisenkot’s approval.
In a statement Sunday, Eisenkot said he would seriously consider easing Azaria’s 18-month sentence.
“If Sgt. (res.) Azaria decides to file a request for a reduced sentence, it will be seriously considered, along with a review of the other considerations related to this case and from my commitment to the values of the IDF, its soldiers and its service members,” Eisenkot said.
The chief of staff has in the past expressed criticism of a public perception of Azaria as “everybody’s child.” He also said the case was accompanied by “manipulations and lies.”
Since a pardon request can only be made once Azaria is in prison, his attorneys would have to forego an appeal in order to seek clemency. The defense team indicated Sunday they will proceed with an appeal to the Supreme Court. However, the head attorney, Yoram Sheftel, said the team would consider a “serious offer” for a reduced sentence or a pardon.
Were Azaria to enter prison, he would only have to serve half his sentence, or nine months, before being eligible for parole, though there is no guarantee that he would receive it. This is different than in civilian criminal law, where a prisoner has to complete two-thirds of his or her sentence before they have a chance at early release.
Following its ruling on Sunday, the military appellate court gave Azaria a 10-day postponement on his entry into prison, allowing the defense time to file a request for another appeal with the Supreme Court.
On January 4, a military court found Azaria, who recently completed his military service, guilty of manslaughter. In addition to the 18-month sentence, the court also ruled that he would be demoted to the rank of private.
The divisive case had revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some seeing Azaria as a hero, while to others, he’s a criminal.
Throughout the trial, Azaria’s legal team claimed he shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in a snap decision, believing the attacker, who Azaria said was slightly moving, may have been armed with a hidden explosives vest or could have lunged for his knife. Prosecutors claimed there was no obvious danger from the critically injured attacker, who had been shot by another soldier and whose knife was more than 80 centimeters (2.5 feet) away, and that Azaria shot Sharif in the head to avenge his comrades, one of whom was injured in the attack.
If an appeal is not lodged by August 9, Azaria will be required to begin his prison sentence. Despite being released from the army earlier this month, Azaria will serve his 18-month sentence in a military prison.
The pardoning process for presidents is an arduous one compared to that of the chief of staff, and would require recommendations from the IDF’s chief prosecutor, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, the chief of staff, and the defense minister.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.