23rd February, 2012
Two Palestinian teens who spent three months in jail on suspicion of throwing a firebomb were released this week because the border policemen who incriminated them turned out to have submitted false reports.
The bomb was allegedly thrown at a Jerusalem checkpoint on October 21. But according to Border Police records, there were no firebombings on October 21, and an officer who testified that he had witnessed the incident was not at the checkpoint that day, either.
The border policemen who gave the testimony were apparently “helped” by investigators, who supplied them with information from the teens’ confession to serve as the basis for their report.
Nevertheless, the charges against the teens have not yet been dropped.
The teens - M.S., 16, and M.R., 17, both from the Shoafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem - were arrested on November 22 by policemen who came to their home at 5 A.M. After several hours of interrogation, the two admitted to throwing a firebomb at border policemen manning the Shoafat checkpoint on Friday, October 21.
Three days after being arrested, they were indicted and jailed in Megiddo Prison until the end of their trial. The evidence against them looked solid: There was their confession, and also the testimony by border policemen who were at the checkpoint.
Ihab Ar’aida, a Border Police officer, filled out a report in January, two and a half months after the incident. “I was forward command officer on the second shift on October 21, 2011,” he wrote. “At about 21:30, I heard an explosive noise.”
Border policeman Henry Tzatzashvilli testified a month after the arrests that he had been at the checkpoint on that date and seen the firebomb explode, and was even hit by the flammable material inside it.
Questions arose even during the remand hearings. The teens’ attorneys - Radi Othman for M.S. and Yihye Mustafa of the Public Defender’s Office for M.R. - noted that the firebombing did not appear in any memorandum, activity report or operations log for that day. A search of the Border Police communications network’s recordings for October 21 also found nothing to indicate a firebombing had occurred that day.
Nevertheless, both the Jerusalem District Court and the Supreme Court rejected the teens’ appeal, so they remained in the lock-up.
The teens’ trial was meant to begin this Sunday, and in preparation, their attorneys asked last week to see the Border Police duty roster for the checkpoint on October 21. The roster showed that Ar’aida had not been at the checkpoint at the date and time the firebomb was allegedly thrown.
This finding convinced the prosecution that there was a problem with the case, and it agreed to release the teens without restrictions and postpone the trial for three weeks.
In a letter to Mustafa, Dotan Daniali, an assistant to the Jerusalem district attorney, claimed there had been a mix-up, and the incident described by the border policemen actually took place on October 26, not October 21. In the letter, Daniali admitted that the border policemen had been given the date by investigators so that their evidence would match the teens’ confession.
Othman said he has little doubt that the teens confessed falsely under pressure, and that the investigators “adopted” October 21 as the date because Friday is a day off in Palestinian schools. Othman also noted that there were contradictions between the two confessions.
“The [border policemen] simply wrote out reports based on what they were told to write,” he said. “People are convicted every day based on policemen’s reports. The problem is that while this time we caught it, there are plenty of times when we don’t know, and people go to prison as a result.”
He added that he hoped the prosecution would refer the case to the Justice Ministry’s department for investigating police misconduct “on its own initiative.”
The Israel Police referred Haaretz to the prosecution for a response. The Justice Ministry, on behalf of the Jerusalem District Attorney’s Office, said the prosecution is “conducting an investigation of the matter, and a decision on how to handle the case will be made only when it is completed.”