The Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday sentenced an American-Israeli man, convicted of hoaxing US Jewish community centers and other targets around the world with thousands of bomb threats, to 10 years in prison.
The 20-year-old, M., whose full name is withheld by a gag order in Israel, has been diagnosed with autism and also suffers from a brain tumor, which his parents and attorney argue impacted his behavior. But, while Judge Tzvi Gurfinkel acknowledged M.’s medical condition, he concluded that the young man was responsible for his actions and understood the difference between right and wrong.
The sentence, which included a fine of NIS 60,000 ($16,068), was three years longer than the seven years that the prosecution had asked for. Gurfunkel ruled that M.’s term will be counted starting from his arrest in March 2017.
The judge addressed the defense used by M.’s attorneys, who quoted the 20-year-old as having told police that “he thought he was causing fun for others.” Gurfunkel said the terror that M. had caused could in no way be interpreted as “fun.”
“Under normal circumstances, if it was not a person with autism, I would have sentenced him to 17 years in prison. The defendant’s condition requires considerable mitigation of the punishment,” said Gurfunkel. “However, it is impossible to ignore the severity of the defendant’s actions.”
As the judge read aloud M.’s sentence, the young man’s father, G., began shouting, “He has autism! He is sick!” and was immediately removed from the courtroom.
M. was found guilty in June of hundreds of counts of extortion, publishing false information that caused panic, computer offenses, and money laundering, among other charges.
Authorities say he made thousands of threatening calls, mostly to community centers and schools in the US, 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.
M. has admitted to making some 2,000 fake bomb threat calls to hospitals, airlines, schools and various Jewish institutions out of boredom.
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.
In addition to facing a long jail 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.
Last month, the Tel Aviv District Court issued a fresh batch of indictments against M., charging him with making three additional hoax threats from prison and for attempting to escape police custody.
Outside the courtroom on Thursday, M.’s father, G., told reporters that the case against his son was a “conspiracy,” saying that authorities had ignored the fact that each threat that M. phoned in had been paid for by individuals around the world that have not been investigated.
He said the “truth” regarding what had motivated the court’s ruling Thursday “will soon come to light.”
“They say this is the country of the Jewish people, but the treatment today of a boy with autism, who has a brain tumor, was not Jewish,” M.’s mother, S. said.
M.’s attorney Yoram Sheftel rejected the notion that the judge had shown his client leniency, highlighting the fact that the punishment was more severe than what the prosecution had requested.
Sheftel cited the case of Lauri Love, a British man diagnosed with autism who was accused of hacking American institutions including the FBI, the US army, the Missile Defense Agency, and the Federal Reserve. However, unlike in M.’s case, Love was not even prosecuted for the crimes, as the UK justice system took his condition into account.
The attorney then took aim at the broader justice system, which he claimed takes more care to ensure the rights of terrorists than those of convicts more worthy of mercy. “A justice system that takes pity on terrorists, not surprisingly, is cruel to a person with autism,” Sheftel said, adding that he intends to appeal Thursday’s sentence.
The attorney told Israeli news outlets in June that his client had attempted suicide at least five times while in prison, since his arrest last March. Earlier this year, he briefly escaped police custody after a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court.
Yoni Haddad, the attorney from the State Attorney’s Office’s Cyber Department, which was responsible for the case, told reporters following the ruling that he was pleased that “the court recognized the damage and the great panic that the defendant caused many people around the world. The defendant carried out the acts with great sophistication, using false identities and with the intention of intimidating the public.”
During a sentencing hearing last month, the defense brought Na’ama Lerner, community outreach director of Bizchut, the Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities, who recommended that M. be placed in one of two psychiatric institutions qualified to care for individuals with autism. However, Gurfunkel rejected the proposal, citing M.’s continued attempts to phone in hoax bomb threats from prison and asserting that he posed too grave a threat to be placed anywhere else.