In blow to Shin Bet, court quashes minor’s confessions in Jerusalem church arson

Judge labels interrogators’ conduct ‘offensive and threatening;’ attorney says far-right activist was harassed for four straight days in elaborate jailhouse informant exercise

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Anti-Christian graffiti found on the walls of Jerusalem's Dormition Abbey reads 'Death to the heretical Christians, the enemies of Israel,' January 17, 2016. (The Dormition Abbey)
Anti-Christian graffiti found on the walls of Jerusalem's Dormition Abbey reads 'Death to the heretical Christians, the enemies of Israel,' January 17, 2016. (The Dormition Abbey)

The Central District Court on Tuesday threw out confessions given under extreme duress by a Jewish far-right activist accused of a series of crimes including membership in a terror organization and vandalizing a prominent Jerusalem church.

The suspect, whose name has been gagged since he was a minor at the time the apparent hate crimes were carried out, was arrested in January 2016 as part of the Shin Bet security service’s broader crackdown against the “terrorist infrastructure” behind the deadly firebombing of the Dawabsha family in the Palestinian village of Duma in July 2015.

During his interrogation, the suspect confessed to being a member of the terrorist organization, to vandalizing the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and to setting several vehicles ablaze in the northern West Bank town of Aqraba. However, his attorney Itamar Ben Gvir has argued that those confessions were given following an elaborate jailhouse informant exercise carried out by the Shin Bet and Israel Police in which the suspect was placed in a mock prison in Acre for four days and was threatened and harassed by detectives pretending to be inmates.

Last week, the “Uvda” investigative TV program published recordings from the jailhouse informant exercise as well as the activist’s subsequent interrogation, in which the fake inmates could be heard threatening him and preventing him from eating and sleeping in an effort to get him to talk.

Judge Michal Brant ruled that “while the offenses were serious and the harm they caused to the public was severe, we have to balance public security with preservation of its dignity.”

Brant referred to the investigators’ conduct as “unfair, to say the least, as well as offensive and threatening.”

“This created a situation in which the defendant was under immense pressure and felt helpless… in which his young age was given no weight, as well as the fact that throughout the whole time, he was prevented from meeting with a lawyer,” the judge said.

The court has prevented the publication of the full details of the case, and until Tuesday, the trial was being held behind closed doors. The ruling was the culmination of a pretrial motion initiated by Ben Gvir, who had requested that his client’s confessions be tossed due to the circumstances in which they were made. Brant agreed to his request to announce her decision in an open-door session, but only certain parts of it were read aloud.

Responding to Tuesday’s decision, Ben Gvir said it should serve as a lesson to the Shin Bet “that the hilltop youth also have rights, and they are violating them.”He made the pronouncement outside the courtroom, using a nickname for young far-right activists who establish outposts throughout the West Bank and are periodically accused of targeting Palestinians, left-wing activists and even Israeli soldiers.

In her response to the decision, state prosecutor Yael Atzmon said that “the police and the Shin Bet carried out an exercise that they thought was done lawfully. The court decided to invalidate the confessions. We will study the decision and consider our next move.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said the information revealed in the decision “raises a seriously troubling feeling in the heart of anyone who advocates for fair trials and investigations conducted according to the law.

He said he had instructed the police, who are under his auspices, to investigate the matter.

Itamar Ben Gvir seen outside a court hearing in Rishon Lezion, on the matter of the Jewish youth suspects in a major security probe whose details are under gag order on December 31, 2018. (Flash90)

The main crime of which the suspect has been accused took place in February 2015. Officials at the Dormition Abbey found parts of the seminary burned along with Hebrew hate slogans graffitied on the walls. Messages included “death to Christians,” “death to Arabs,” and “Jesus is a monkey.”

The Dormition Abbey, which is located next to the Cenacle — a compound that Jews revere as the site of King David’s Tomb, and Christians as the room of the Last Supper — outside the Zion Gate to the Old City, has been the site of numerous graffiti attacks over the last decade. In 2014, hours after Pope Francis celebrated mass at the abbey, arsonists set fire to the compound, causing minor damage to its structure.

The minor whose confession was thrown out was arrested along with two other suspects for the vandalism: Eyal Reuveni, who has since been sentenced to five and a half years in jail for the July 2015 arson attack at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in northern Israel; and another unnamed minor who was indicted as an accomplice in the Duma terror attack.

In June, the Lod District Court handed down a similar ruling to Tuesday’s, throwing out several confessions made by the alleged accomplice tying him to the Duma attack, because they were extracted under extreme duress by Shin Bet interrogators. The court subsequently agreed to release him and he has since been under house arrest.

A man shows a picture of 18-month-old Palestinian toddler Ali Saad Dawabsha, who died when his family house was set on fire by alleged Jewish extremists in the West Bank village of Duma, on July 31, 2015. (AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Ben Gvir predicted that Tuesday’s decision could also impact the Shin Bet and state prosecutor’s handling of another ongoing case being investigated as a Jewish terror attack.

On Monday, the Lod District Court rejected an appeal from three Jewish minors arrested in a major security probe to meet with their attorneys. The judge extended until Tuesday the order barring counsel visits, which has been in effect since the teens were detained on Sunday. However, he agreed to their attorneys’ requests that a probation officer check in on their well-being.

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