The trial of a policeman for the negligent homicide of Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah in June 2019 opened on Sunday before Judge Zaid Falah of the Haifa Magistrate’s Court.
In an unusual opening statement at the trial, Falah said, “Violence, demonstrations and media will not influence the court – only admissible evidence. I will not hesitate to acquit or to convict. An acquittal will not place any stain on the deceased or his community. A conviction will not place any stain on the police.”
The judge added that he would visit the scene of the incident.
The policeman, whose name is under gag order, was indicted on February 4, following former State Attorney Shai Nitzan’s November 2019 decision to indict pending a pre-indictment hearing.
Although Nitzan had no replacement at the time, the pre-indictment hearings were handled by other state prosecution officials. Nitzan was only recently replaced by senior prosecution official Dan Eldad, but it is unclear whether Eldad is wielding true authority over this or any other major case since his appointment was opposed by his boss, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit. He has been attacked by former state attorney Moshe Lador as an unfit politicized appointment made by acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana in order to undermine the prosecution.
Though Nitzan had also considered a murder charge early on and had considered closing the case, he eventually settled on negligent homicide because the policeman fired negligently, and the shooting lead to Tekah’s death.
Tekah’s killing shook the country which led to nationwide protests by the Ethiopian community over their perceptions of dangerous discrimination of them by police and racism against them generally.
New allegations were constantly emerging, including that Tekah and some of his friends were chasing the policeman when he fired on them wildly without looking. Other narratives say that Tekah and his friends were pursuing the policeman and that they hit him twice with rocks, but that they still kept their distance, did not advance towards him at the moment that he fired and did not present a danger warranting more than firing in the air, at most.
Although the policeman’s conduct in this case would be problematic – due to his possibly being pursued or rocks being thrown – which would undermine a more serious murder or manslaughter charge.
In July 2019, the Police Investigations Department (PID) sent a letter to the parents of Tekah defending the findings of both the police ballistics department and of the state’s forensics institute (independent from the police) that the bullet, which the policeman fired and which killed Tekah, was a ricochet.
THIS ISSUE is also of crucial importance, because if the policeman fired at the ground and not directly at Tekah, then he could not be charged with more than involuntary manslaughter as was recommended by the PID.
The PID also rejected a request by the parents to view the case file before the prosecution made a final decision about the alleged charges, though it did say that it would consider the possibility of performing additional investigatory activities requested by the family.
The autopsy was done at the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, according to sources familiar with the case.
The PID condemned the leaks from the investigation and expressed sympathy with the family’s anger over their occurrence.
The parents have condemned the lenient charge of negligent homicide for a killing as a whitewash of the policeman, who, they say, acted under racist presumptions in a situation where no obvious crime was being committed, certainly not one requiring any use of force.
The police placed the policeman who shot and killed Tekah on forced leave in July 2019.
Following the hearing, friends of Tekah began yelling “murderer” at the officer.
The policeman has until March 10 to formally respond to the indictment.
Attorney Yair Nadshi, representing the policeman, has said that the policeman acted in self-defense and than an indictment should not have been brought against him.
Ohana succeeded in having the cabinet establish a state commission to investigate the PID’s conduct, primarily using the Tekah case as justification for the move.
The newly formed state commission has summoned PID chief Keren Ben Menachem to a hearing this week to answer for the department’s controversial decision, which some say overly protects the police.
The cabinet acted despite Mandelblit’s objection, who, for months, has personally been conducting a special review of the case and of all prosecution-police issues relating to Ethiopians. Mandelblit is expecting to release a report in the coming weeks.
Mandelblit and his supporters have implied that the cabinet acted out of partisan electoral considerations and sought to harm the prosecution in the Tekah case, perhaps viewing this as a way to retaliate against Mandelblit’s indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They claim that the cabinet action not really out of concern for the Ethiopian issue which the attorney-general was already probing.
News reports leaking cabinet minutes at the end of last week named certain ministers saying that they wish they could be probing the entire prosecution apparatus.
There is already a special unit for probing the prosecution, headed by former Judge David Rozen, who sent former prime minister Ehud Olmert to jail. Critics of the prosecution have mostly ignored the existence of Rozen’s unit.
Rozen has criticized the prosecution on a number of fronts, but has implied that overall he trusts their neutrality – including in the Netanyahu case decisions – something which cabinet critics of the prosecution cannot accept.
Netanyahu’s trial is expected to start shortly after the March 2 election.