Prosecution drops case against far-right activists in Jerusalem church arson

Decision marks further blow to Shin Bet, which saw confessions it extracted from suspect through elaborate jailhouse informant exercise thrown out by court two months ago

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Right-wing activists protest alleged Shin Bet torture of Jewish terror suspects, staging mock torture scenes in Tel Aviv, December 25, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Right-wing activists protest alleged Shin Bet torture of Jewish terror suspects, staging mock torture scenes in Tel Aviv, December 25, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

State prosecutors announced Monday that they would be dropping their case against two Jewish far-right activists they had indicted on a series of crimes, including membership in a terror organization and vandalizing a prominent Jerusalem church.

The prosecution informed the Lod District Court that it did not have enough evidence to prosecute Yinon Reuveni, 23, and a second suspect, 21, whose name has been barred from publication as he was a minor at the time of the incidents for which he had been charged.

The announcement came just over two months after the Lod District Court threw out the confessions given under extreme duress by the younger suspect, in a decision seen as a major blow to the Shin Bet security service, which had led the investigation.

In a statement on Monday, the security service criticized the January decision, saying the confessions were thrown out “even though there was no dispute that a significant part of the relevant confessions were obtained in the course of investigations in which no improper means were employed.”

“The Shin Bet respects the court decision [on Monday] and will continue to act in accordance with the law to safeguard the security of the state and thwart terrorism, regardless of the identity of  the perpetrators,” it continued.

The agency also rejected “attempts by interested parties to make improper use of the court’s decision to attack the Shin Bet and to delegitimize the organization’s activities in general, and the unit’s activity to prevent terrorism” among Jews, in particular.

Reacting to the Monday announcement, the attorney for the two suspects, Itamar Ben Gvir, said that it marked the culmination, after three years, “of one of the most serious cases in the history of Israeli law.”

Ben Gvir is running as a candidate on the Union of Right Wing Parties slate as the second representative of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party. The attorney said he hoped to be able to continue representing settlers and right-wing activists in the Knesset.

Yinon Reuveni (R) consults with his attorney Itamar Ben Gvir during his trial at the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court on July 29, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Reuveni and the younger suspect were arrested in January 2016 as part of the Shin Bet’s broader crackdown against the “terrorist infrastructure” behind the deadly July 2015 firebombing of the Dawabsha family in the Palestinian village of Duma.

During his interrogation, the younger 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, Ben Gvir 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.

In a report that aired just days before the January Lod District Court decision, 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.

It was as a result of that exercise that the younger suspect confessed to the series of charges against him and implicated Reuveni.

Judge Michal Brant ruled in January 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.”

Saad and Riham Dawabsha, with baby Ali (Channel 2 screenshot)

“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 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.

The main crime of which Reuveni and his younger accomplice were 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.

Dormition Abbey seen from the Old City of Jerusalem ramparts (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The minor whose confession was thrown out was arrested for the vandalism along with two other suspects: 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 interrogators. The court subsequently agreed to release him and he has since been under house arrest.

In its Monday announcement, the Lod District Attorney’s Office said that its effort to convict the Duma suspects was ongoing.

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