peres good pic 88.
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Last week, after he had commuted the life sentences of five Israeli Arabs who were twice convicted for the 1983 murder of 14-year-old Danny Katz, President Shimon Peres issued an official statement expressing "understanding for the family's pain" but stressing that his decision was mandated by the recommendations of a statutory committee reviewing life sentences and by the justice minister.
Three of the convicts had their sentences cut to 30 years and two to 45 years. The latter two are also serving life-terms for the rape and homicide of soldier Daphna Carmon. She was 19 at the time.
The double-murderers could be out in some five years. Their three co-conspirators could be released in the coming months, with a third of their sentence slashed for "good behavior."
Katz's disappearance from his Haifa neighborhood on the afternoon of December 12, 1983, and the discovery three days later of his stripped, battered, molested and hideously mutilated body in a cave outside the Galilee village of Sakhnin, evoked emotional aftershocks throughout the country. The malice unleashed on the child suggested to investigators murder of a nationalist/terrorist nature. The assumption was that Danny had been randomly chosen as a victim because he was Jewish.
The arrests were made several months later and the convictions centered on confessions. Several appeals followed the Haifa District Court trial, and the case was reviewed by then-Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar. Critics from the Israeli Arab community, nevertheless, insisted the five had been framed and their admissions forcibly extracted. Then-justice minister David Liba'i ordered another prosecutorial review.
Eventually, Shamgar's successor, Aharon Barak, granted a retrial, during which three of the convicts were released on bail. In a meticulous 400-page verdict, the Tel Aviv District Court again convicted all five. Again they resorted to all appeal procedures and ultimately won another Supreme Court hearing. Their conviction was again upheld two years ago, when Justice Ayala Procaccia wrote: "The judicial system made extreme attempts to remove the least cloud from this episode. No effort was spared to respect the defendants' civil rights and to determine the truth."
How, then, could the sentences be commuted so soon thereafter? Peres has cited "classified information."
But if exculpatory evidence had surfaced, why not make it public? And if such evidence was so acutely sensitive, why not at least inform the affected victims' families, who only heard about the commuting of the sentences from the media.
It wouldn't be the first time convictions were exposed as flawed - from Amos Baranes's conviction for Rachel Heller's 1974 murder to the arrests of several Kafr Manda residents for the 2003 abduction/murder of soldier Oleg Shaikhet of Upper Nazareth. (The capture of the real murderers, also from Kafr Manda, let the initial suspects off the hook.)
Furthermore, excessive reliance on confessions and reenactments has repeatedly generated misgivings about the quality of police investigations. In the Ma'atz arson case of the 1970s, apologies and restitutions were made to the wrongly incarcerated.
Yet here all legal process had failed to persuade many different judges to overthrow the original conviction. Reducing the sentences of convicts in so heinous a crime - especially of two recidivists who had murdered and savagely violated another victim - seems to remove any modicum of deterrent.
The handling of the matter also makes a mockery of recent moves to confer legal standing on victims and their families. Is the anguish of the Katzes and Carmons of no consequence? In other democracies, victims are heard at all phases of sentencing and/or parole deliberations.
Finally, the dependence on "undisclosed evidence" is particularly problematic. It can be countenanced in the framework of the war on terror and the need to safeguard intelligence sources, but civilian courts must operate transparently. Whispers behind closed doors are as potentially detrimental to the rights of defendants as of victims.
So experienced a public figure as Peres should be cognizant of all the above. Moreover, he is entitled by rank to question, delve deeper and evince extra sensitivity. No one can force him to sign on the dotted line until he is satisfied. If only because of the absent sensitivity to the victims' families in this case, he should not have been.
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