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Suspended Sentence for Policeman Who Shot Arab Citizen for No Reason, Leaving Him Disabled

Suspended Sentence for Policeman Who Shot Arab Citizen for No Reason, Leavi...

On 30 December 2007, Tel Aviv District Court convicted a former policeman in the Border Guard, Chaim Castro, on charges of aggravated assault. In 2003, Castro shot Salah Suleiman `Amer, a resident of Kafr Qassem, from a distance of some 50 cm, injuring him in the leg. Castro was sentenced to six months’ community service.

The shooting incident occurred in September 2003 during the Second Intifada, a few days after the submission of the report of the Or Commission, which investigated the killing of Arab citizens during the incidents of October 2000. The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) investigated the incident [1].  It emerged that on 11 September 2003, four Border Guard policemen, among them Castro, entered Kafr Qassem and went to an auto repair garage. The three men working at the garage, one of whom was Shadi, the son of Salah `Amer, were about to close the garage. The Border Guard policemen claimed that they were searching for a stolen mini-tractor. After failing to find anything on the premises, they attacked and beat the workers for no reason. When Shadi and the other workers ran away from the garage, the policemen chased them, firing live ammunition. Salah arrived on the scene and attempted to defend his son, and was injured in the leg by a shot fired from Castro’s rifle. As a result Salah sustained injuries to his right thigh and was declared 100 percent disabled. The testimonies of the victims and of witnesses to the incident are supported by photographs taken by one of those present on the scene, Akrami `Araf `Issa.

The defendant admitted firing his weapon. In his defense, he claimed that he had aimed toward the ground and that the plaintiff was presumably injured by the force of the impact rather than by the shot itself. The policeman further claimed that the plaintiff had attempted to throw a rock at him and, in this situation, he felt that his life and those of his colleagues were in danger. This led him to act instinctively to protect himself without considering the consequences of his actions. The court did not accept this version, however, rightly establishing that the defendant’s claim to have been acting due to a clear threat to his life was groundless. The testimonies collected by HRA indeed confirm that the policeman was not in mortal danger.

The HRA welcomes the conviction of the policeman, which it believes constitutes an important (though still inadequate) step toward enforcing criminal law against police personnel. These personnel receive lethal weapons, and their functions demand that they use these weapons with the utmost caution and responsibility (something that is often not seen in practice).

The attack on Salah by the policemen was not an isolated or one-time incident, but is just one of a large number of incidents in which the police have used excessive violence and even fired live ammunition against Arab citizens in situations in which they did not face any mortal danger. The most prominent of these incidents were the events of October 2000, when 12 Arab citizens and one Palestinian resident of the Occupied Territories were killed by police personnel during demonstrations by Arab citizens following the visit by then leader of the opposition Ariel Sharon to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. The Arab citizens claimed at the time that the police used live ammunition and rubber bullets without justification, and in situations in which there was no threat to their lives. These claims were later corroborated when an official commission of inquiry headed by former Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or and charged with investigating the circumstances behind the killing of the Arab citizens in these incidents concluded that the shooting and killing of the Arab demonstrators was unjustified. The committee recommended that the police personnel involved in the shooting should be prosecuted (this recommendation has not to date been implemented).

Among other conclusions, the Or Commission emphasized:

“It is important to inculcate at all levels of the police the importance of considered and moderate behavior in its relations with the Arab sector. As part of this, it is important to act to uproot phenomena of negative prejudices that were exposed, including among veteran and admired officers, regarding the Arab sector. The police must inculcate among its policepersons the understanding that the Arab population in its entirety is not their enemy, and that it is not to be treated as an enemy.”  [2]

Despite this recommendation, and despite the lethal events of October 2000, no fewer than 11 Arab civilians have been killed by the police since October 2000 in circumstances that were unrelated to nationalist or security issues [3].  During this period, only one incident occurred in which a Jewish citizen was shot dead by the police (a man was shot after stabbing and killing both his parents). In 2006, two Arab citizens who killed by the police: Nadim Malham on 19 January and Mahmud Ghanayam on 3 July [4].  The high number of Arab citizens killed is compounded by countless cases when unwarranted physical force has been used against Arab citizens (in cases that did not lead to fatalities), in circumstances raising concern that the violence was racially motivated [5].  A recent example of this excessive force was the clashes between the police and residents of the Arab village of Al-Buqei`a in the north of Israel [6]. 

Not one of the police personnel involved in the above-mentioned incidents has been convicted. In some cases (a total of four) a decision has been reached to prosecute the police personnel, but the process is still pending. In most cases, however, the authorities decide to close the files against the police personnel, arguing that they acted properly.

Although the conviction in this case is very important, the penalty imposed on the offender effectively neutralizes the impact of the conviction. The penalty is regrettably inconsonant with the gravity of his offense, and it must be doubted whether it can convey a firm message to other police personnel not to abuse the power they have been granted – power that, if treated irresponsibly, can have fatal consequences, as has been seen mainly with regard to the Arab population.

The court itself wrote that: “Those serving in law enforcement agencies in general, including Border Guard police in particular, bear an obligation to act with restraint and self-control in their contacts with a civilian population (…) The need thus arises to adopt a strict approach to offenses of injury to civilians committed by those wearing police uniforms when the court forms the conclusion that the injury was unnecessary and unneeded.” Powerful words, indeed. Yet instead of imposing a penalty on the policeman commensurate with the severity of his actions, the judge – on the basis of the recommendation of the Probation Service – confined himself to imposing a penalty of six months’ community service. The judge clarified that he would have considered imposing actual imprisonment had the prosecution requested this.

This case raises some serious questions. Why did the court feel itself limited to the penalty requested by the prosecution? And why did the prosecution itself not demand an actual prison sentence? After all, the incident was very grave, involving the use of live ammunition against an unarmed civilian in a situation in which the policeman did not face any danger. Do such circumstances not justify a prison sentence or, at least, a firmer penalty than that imposed on the policeman?

A stricter penalty was also appropriate given the growing phenomenon since October 2000 of the use of live ammunition by the police against Arab citizens. A firmer response would have conveyed a clear and forceful message to the police that the legal system will respond appropriate to its trigger-happy policy. Regrettably, the court missed the opportunity to convey this message.

Worse still, the message conveyed to the police by the court was that while such actions are serious, they are not serious enough to warrant the imposition of a firm penalty as a means of deterrence. Accordingly, there can be no guarantee that the police will not act irresponsibly in its contacts with the Arab population as it has done so many times in the past.

Footnotes:

[1]  See the testimonies collected by HRA:http://www.arabhra.org/Hra/SecondaryArticles/SecondaryArticlePage.aspx?SecondaryArticle=1395&Language=3.

[2]  Report of the Or Commission, Chapter Six, paras. 14 and 15.

[3]  In fact, according to an examination by Ha’aretz newspaper, 18 Arab citizens have been killed since October 2000 by the Israeli security forces – 11 by the police, five by the Israeli army, and 2 by private security personnel. See Y. Levinas, Y. Stern, “Is the Police Trigger-Happy When It Comes to Arab Citizens? How Can We Know When There Are No Data?” Ha’aretz, 23 January 2006; Y. Levinas, “The Police and the Arabs: The Command Does Not Examine the ‘Trigger-Happy’ Phenomenon,” Ha’aretz, 5 October 2006.

[4]  For further details, see the HRA report: On the Margins: Annual Review of Human Rights Violations of the Arab Palestinian Minority in Israel 2006 (June 2007), Chapter Seven.}

[5]  For details, see three HRA reports: Four Years On: Cases of Police Brutality against Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel during the Year Following the Or Commission Report on the October 2000 Events (September 2004); On the Margins: Annual Review of Human Rights Violations of the Arab Palestinian Minority in Israel 2005 (June 2006); On the Margins: Annual Review of Human Rights Violations of the Arab Palestinian Minority in Israel 2006 (June 2007).

[6]  See the HRA report: October Now: The Events in Al-Buqei`a: Violence and Discrimination in Law Enforcement in Israel (November 2007).