Chile’s state prosecution dropped charges on Wednesday against an Israeli
backpacker suspected of accidentally starting a massive brushfire in the Torres
del Paine national park last month.
The prosecution agreed to “suspend
procedures” against Rotem Singer as part of a deal in which he agreed to a pay a
$10,000 fine and volunteer for the Jewish National Fund for two years upon his
return to Israel. Under the terms of the agreement, Singer is not implicated in
starting the fire.
“We are very happy,” his mother told Army Radio on
Thursday. “We don’t yet know when he will be able to return to Israel. His
father is still with him there.”
Chilean authorities detained the
23-year-old backpacker last January on suspicion of inadvertently starting a
conflagration that blazed through 14,500 hectares of pristine forest. Singer
said he had been shocked when he was greeted by a group of angry protesters
outside the court where his first hearing was held.
He denied any
involvement in the fire, but news that an Israeli was a suspect in the
investigation quickly spread. Chilean lawmakers, including Congressman Fuad
Chahin and Senator Eugenio Tuma, accused Singer of being part of an Israeli
conspiracy. One Chilean commentator speculated the fire might be part of
an Israeli plan to invade Patagonia.
The Anti-Defamation League expressed
its outrage at the time over what it said was the scapegoating of Jews and
“Irrespective of whether or not the Israeli individual was
responsible for the fire, there is absolutely no justification for these kinds
of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories,” wrote ADL head Abraham
Police in Chile later began investigating alternate causes for
the fires, which also ravaged several other parks. Investigators now believe
they were at least partially the result of arson.
Members of Chile’s
Jewish community offered assistance to Singer throughout his trial. Attorney
Gabriel Zaliasnik, the former head of the Jewish community there, provided legal
assistance, and Rabbi Menashe Permann, a Chabad emissary in Santiago, gave him
Chilean media quoted Singer on Thursday as thanking the Jewish
community “that trusted me and had faith in my innocence.” Despite his ordeal,
he said he hoped one day to return to Torres del Paine and “the beautiful
country of Chile.”