(photo credit: Courtesy )
"He was different from the rest of us. I was surprised he wanted to be a taxi driver. He was punctual, responsible and honest, and was always impeccably dressed - not scruffy like the rest of us."
That's how a colleague described Derek Roth to The Jerusalem Post shortly after the Herzliya cab driver was shot in cold blood while working on the night of January 9, 1994. As a veteran immigrant from England, the 50-year-old Roth was indeed unusual for his profession, an occupation which generally does not attract Anglo-Israelis, and definitely could use more with the qualities described above.
It soon turned out, though, that the truly exceptional aspect of this case was not the victim but the perpetrators. While the crime was initially assumed to have been a botched robbery or terrorist attack, police soon arrested two 14-year-old local boys from well-off families who admitted having killed Roth simply for "the fun of it."
Shock at the motive behind the slaying later turned to indignation over the subsequent sentencing of these depraved teenage killers. Even though the judges in their trial described the murder of Roth as "threatening, cruel... an example of evil for evil's sake," they sentenced Moshe Ben-Ivgi and Arbel Aloni to a mere 16 years in prison, making them eligible for parole after just 10 years.
While outrage over the verdict was widespread, it left a particularly bitter taste in the mouth of this fellow English-speaking immigrant. That Derek Roth had left his native England only to meet his fate here at the hands of these locally grown versions of Leopold and Loeb seemed like the ultimate perverse conclusion of the classic formulation that the "normalcy of Zionism" will be achieved "when the first Jewish prostitute is arrested by the first Jewish policeman..."
It turned out that the injustices of this case, especially for the widow and children Roth left behind, were far from over. Just four years after the murder, Ben-Ivgi and Aloni were being released from prison on weekend furloughs - and during one of them Ben-Ivgi was arrested again, this time for robbing a grocery store and stabbing a 67-year-old woman during the course of the crime.
"Insult has been added to injury and travesty... whether the killer of Derek Roth is innocent or guilty of the current charges, the simple fact that he is already being allowed to walk free, is a fact as shocking as the original crime," I wrote in the Post at the time.
Alas, much worse insult, injury and travesty lay ahead.
THREE YEARS ago Ben-Ivgi was again, incredibly, being let out of prison on weekend furloughs. During one such visit home, he utilized a forged passport to flee to Argentina, clearly receiving some outside help to escape the country.
And once again, he used his undeserved freedom to commit another crime. Just six months after fleeing Israel, Ben-Ivgi was arrested and convicted in Argentina on a drug-related charge.
Although Argentina is a nation that famously does not have an extradition treaty with Israel (a la the Eichmann affair), the Justice Ministry requested that Ben-Ivgi be returned here after finishing out his current sentence. An Argentine district court initially ruled in favor of Israel's request, provided that Ben-Ivgi be required only to serve out his sentence for the robbery he committed as a adult, and not the murder he perpetrated as a minor.
But with the clock ticking down toward his imminent release this winter, even that tiny bit of justice appears close to being denied. Two months ago, Argentina's Supreme Court overturned the decision in favor of Ben-Ivgi's extradition, claiming that the Israeli Justice Ministry had made technical errors in submitting its initial request. And for reasons still not clear, the notification for the extradition request to be resubmitted reached Israel only a few days before a final deadline expired on what may well be the last chance to prevent Ben-Ivgi from again being allowed to walk free.
While the outcome of this case is still uncertain, justice will not be done no matter how it concludes. The undeserved leniency shown Roth's killers, even by the sometimes excessively lax standards of the Israeli criminal justice system, has itself been criminal.
And call it perhaps Anglo-Israeli paranoia if you will, but I can't help wondering whether Roth's status as a working-class English immigrant without protekzia, in comparison to the better-connected sabra background of his killers, wasn't in some degree a factor in the myriad turns of this affair.
While it's too late to undo past mistakes, the Justice Ministry must now make a supreme effort to see that Moshe Ben-Ivgi does not walk scot-free this year. Derek Roth certainly deserved a better fate than a bullet in the back of the head from some bored, malevolent adolescents, after having left his native land to make a new life for himself in Israel. Now the rest of us, especially his family, deserve better than seeing one of his unrepentant killers walk off a free man just a dozen years after Roth's callous murder.
The writer is the director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project (www.theisraelproject.org).