A recording surfaced on Wednesday which appeared to confirm that military officials urged the family of an IDF soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting an incapacitated Palestinian assailant, to forego appealing the conviction in a bid to secure a reduced punishment.
The Jaffa Military Court last Wednesday convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria, 20, of manslaughter in the fatal shooting last March of Palestinian stabber Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron. Azaria’s sentencing is scheduled for January 15.
The IDF has denied that the meeting was about sentencing, charging that the conversation was about offering possible assistance to the family.
Channel 2 obtained a recording of the conversation between Azaria’s father Charlie and Col. Guy Hazut, the commander of the Kfir Brigade in which his son serves. The conversation seems to have been recorded on Monday, the day after a Palestinian terrorist rammed his truck into a group of soldiers in Jerusalem, killing four and injuring 17. Amid allegations by a civilian guide that the soldiers did not respond by opening fire on the terrorist, while he did, the army launched a probe, later determining that several soldiers did indeed shoot at the terrorist. Some in the political echelon and in the media sought to attribute the alleged hesitation to shoot at the assailant — denied by those present — to a fear of being prosecuted, or the “Elor Azaria effect.”
In the recorded conversation, Hazut implies that the best option for the convicted soldier would be to drop any appeal and consider replacing the defense team.
“I want to tell you that I’m representing not only myself but the entire army,” Hazut said. “What I suggest is the following: I want to introduce you to the chief defense lawyer of the IDF who will tell you which options you have with the IDF defense, whether additional counselling or whether to add someone to your defense team… I only know what I have read and from what I learned in the past week, the line of defense… has not been successful so far.”
While Azaria insisted that his son did nothing wrong and should serve no jail time, Hazut stressed that the best course of action would be to not appeal the verdict.
“I don’t want my son at the age of 21 to have manslaughter on his record while he was serving the state and did nothing [wrong],” Azaria responded.
“I can tell you,” said Hazut, “that the chances of that type of appeal being accepted… are very weak.”
“When I hear soldiers calling me saying… ‘I don’t know when it is permitted to shoot and when it is prohibited…’ what should I tell them?” said Charlie Azaria. “When I saw yesterday what happened [when there were claims that soldiers held back from shooting a terrorist in the truck-ramming attack out of concern they would be prosecuted like Azaria] I was embarrassed.”
Azaria voiced concerns that if his son accepted the verdict, he would never be able to have a gun license. He also expressed concern that someone may try to harm his son.
“Charlie, we can solve all of those problems,” said Hazut in the recording.
Azaria asked whether the army could offer to release his son from jail and send him home, which he presented as a condition for accepting any kind of deal to drop the appeal.
Hazut told him there was very little likelihood of that. “I don’t want to mislead you, this will not end without some time in jail. But it is a question of alternatives.”
In a letter to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday morning, Azaria’s attorneys Eyal Besserglick and Ilan Katz denounced the meeting, saying it was “crossing a red line.”
“We discovered to our amazement that improper contacts were made by senior IDF persons… to the father of our client in order to cause him to replace his attorney and likewise to refrain from a future appeal in this case, while also making various assurances — things that could allegedly be a criminal offense,” the letter read.
The IDF on Wednesday denied the Channel 2 report, issuing a statement insisting that the meeting was not about Azaria’s sentencing. Rather, it said, “the purpose of the meeting was to see if the the family needed any assistance.”
“The IDF wants to make clear that it will not detail the content of the meeting that took place between the family of Sgt. Elor Azaria and his commander, but denies the incorrect report on Channel 2 that suggested an offer was made to lighten the punishment, or concerning the appeal, or any other involvement in the legal process,” the army said. “The IDF spokesperson would like to stress that Sgt. Elor Azaria is entitled to a clean legal process that is free of pressures, and in which he is dealt with by his commanders in a regular manner like any other IDF soldier.”
“We would also point out that Sgt. Elor Azaria received appropriate conditions, and even better, during the months he was under open arrest on an army base,” the army stressed.
By law, there are two ways Azaria may obtain a pardon. All convicts, including soldiers, can appeal to the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, for a pardon. Soldiers can also turn to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who has the legal power to issue pardons for active-duty personnel.
On Tuesday, Liberman alluded to efforts aimed at resolving the divisive issue, writing on his Facebook page that those calling for an immediate pardon and protesting the conviction should keep quiet, as they were doing more harm to Azaria than good.
“We all know that on one side [of this case] there’s a decorated soldier and on the other there’s a terrorist who came to kill Jews,” Liberman wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.
“We’re doing everything to safeguard both the ethics of the IDF and the soldier Azaria. Anything else only does harm,” he said.
Since the verdict was announced last week, Liberman, who voiced support for Azaria before taking up the Defense Ministry post last year, has called on Israelis to respect the court’s decision and asked the soldier’s attorneys to agree to a deal in which they forego filing an appeal in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Many right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have called for Azaria to be pardoned, as has former Labor leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union).