The Bar Noar double murder case against Hagai Felician appeared in danger of imminent collapse after Tel Aviv detectives arrested the state witness on Wednesday and brought him in for questioning.
The arrest came amid reports that the Justice Ministry had been holding meetings to weigh canceling the indictment against Felician, suspected of murdering two people in a shooting at an LGBT Bar Noar, or youth center, in 2009.
Tel Aviv police issued a dual statement with the Justice Ministry on Wednesday saying that “recently new information has been uncovered dealing with the Bar Noar affair. Due to this new information, and after consultations between the state prosecutors and police, the decision was made to carry out further investigative work, including the arrest of the state witness.”
Police said the witness was suspected of tampering with the investigation and obstruction of justice, possibly indicating that they believe he gave false testimony.
The witness’s attorney said Wednesday that police suspected his client was involved in the murder, even though he was in prison at the time.
The same day, police secured a gag order on all of the investigative findings in the case since the issuing of the indictment against Felician in July.
Celebrating the news, Felician’s attorney, Moshe Yochai, said: “They railroaded him [Hagai] for nothing. He’s an innocent man and we knew it was all lies from the beginning.”
Yochai added that he’d told Felician the news in the morning, and that he and his client’s family expected Hagai to be released in the coming days.
The case against Felician includes no DNA, fingerprints or eyewitness, and is based almost entirely on the testimony of the state witness, himself a close relative of Tarlan Hankishayev, another man arrested in the Bar Noar case.
The witness, “Z.,” has been a problematic source from the beginning. A man with a long history of trouble with the law for property and drug crimes, he came forward to police toward the end of a 40-month sentence in prison for assault and said he knew who committed the Bar Noar killings. He pointed at Hagai Felician, who he said carried out the killings along with his brother Benny Felician and Tarlan Hankishayev in order to avenge the alleged sexual assault of the younger Felician by Shaul Gonen, the manager of the Bar Noar.
Z. grew up in Pardes Katz with the Felicians and Hankishayev, a close relative of his. In interviews after the Bar Noar case broke, Z. described how they all ran together on the same streets, got in trouble with the law together and looked out for one another until a few years ago, when Z. came out of the closet as a homosexual. Z. said the news didn’t go over well in the tough working- class corner of Pardes Katz he called home, and he found himself ostracized from his family and his former partners in crime. On a number of occasions during those years he found himself visiting the Bar Noar, where he met many members of the Tel Aviv LGBT community.
The reality he described was one of being a gay man out of place in Pardes Katz and a tough kid from Pardes Katz out of place in the Tel Aviv LGBT community.
After he came forward, Z. said that during his time in prison his childhood friends from Pardes Katz turned their backs on him – that they didn’t put money in his commissary and didn’t visit, driving him to go to police partially out of revenge. The Hankishayevs, for their part, have denied this, saying that they helped Z. during his incarceration whenever he needed.
During his incarceration, Z. was also in touch with activists from the LGBT community, who visited him in prison and lobbied on his behalf to the prison services.
They tried to help him get protection in jail, where he said he was harassed as an openly gay man.
They also pushed for his failed request to receive conjugal visits from his partner.
Z. later said that in addition to avenging the alleged abandonment by his friends, he came forward also in order to repay the LGBT community for their help.
After he went into protective custody, Z. almost immediately created difficulties for his handlers. He violated an agreement not to speak to the press, giving interviews with Channel 2 and other outlets even though he was believed to be in mortal danger.
In June, Z. fled his safe house in Tel Aviv and led police on a manhunt to the North and back.
Later, he was the subject of a segment on the TV program Uvda in December, which reported that years earlier he had come forward to police to give them information about the infamous October 2006 slaying of Ayal Salhov.
Salhov was an associate of the Avi Ruhan crime gang who was working as a police informant. Z. named Ya’acov Felician, Hagai’s brother, as the killer of Salhov, who was the husband of the Felicians’ sister, but the witness’s testimony in that case was never taken seriously by police.
The Uvda piece cast further doubt on Z., with the program asking why his testimony was considered unreliable in one case, but strong enough to build an indictment around in another.
Without the testimony of Z., the Bar Noar case would have only the testimony of Shaul Gonen, who pleaded guilty to the sexual assault in order to get immunity in exchange for testifying in the case, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who was jailed with Felician.
The arrest of the three Bar Noar suspects in June 2013 was a bombshell announcement that came after years of criticism of the police for not being able to solve what had become their flagship case.
In the weeks that followed, however, their handling of the case became a major embarrassment for police, as they violated a gag order on the suspects’ identities and as the state witness escaped.
Z.’s attorney, Yair Regev, said on Wednesday that police “knew that they and the prosecution didn’t have a strong enough indictment, so they arrested Z. in order to throw it all on him. They knew they wouldn’t win in court, and this is their way of backing out.”
When asked how Z. responded to his arrest on Wednesday, Regev said, “he’s in very bad shape. He knows that Hagai Felician is about to get out and that they’re going to throw him [Z.] to the dogs. If he’s murdered by the Felician family I guess that will be the end of it, no?”