MPCID and the Military Prosecution refuse to do the bare minimum required in the investigation of the death of a protester: find out where the shooters stood
This blog has dealt more than once with cases in which MPCID negligence and intentional delaying seemed so exceptional, that you had to wonder whether they involved negligence or a calculated attempt to disrupt the investigation. The case before us, that of Palestinian protester Bassem Abu Rahmeh, moves in the same trajectory.
The Abu Rahmeh case, discussed here previously, is really quite simple. On April 17th, 2009, Abu Rahmeh protested near the separation wall in his village, Bil’in, in the West Bank. (We note that at the time, the wall followed a route that in 2007 the HCJ ruled to change, but the IDF was in no hurry and changed it only in 2011.) Abu Rahmeh was unarmed, and did not employ any violence, and yet, at the moment he protested the security forces shooting another demonstrator, an Israeli security forces personnel in uniform fired an extended-range tear gas grenade (a grenade used to disperse demonstrators from a distance) directly at him. The grenade hit Abu Rahmeh in the chest, and quickly led to his death.
Note and this is important: these facts are not being disputed. Even so, six years and counting after Abu Rahmeh’s death, the IDF – through MPCID and the Military Prosecution – is still doing its best to avoid trying the man who shot him. To quote the appeal we submitted to the HCJ with B’Tselem in April 2015, “From the chain of events, it is evident that this is (at best) a case of severe negligence on part of the respondents, and contempt of a most severe case of killing an unarmed protester, who was protesting peacefully. Military and civil law enforcement entities have allowed the case of a killing of an innocent man to fall through the cracks time and again, requiring the court to intervene repeatedly… Abu Rahmeh was killed by IDF soldiers who – at best – shot him negligently, and the investigation of the responsibility for his death was smothered for years by the investigative and prosecutorial bodies’ inexcusable red-tape behavior”.
Here is the chain of events, in chronological order:
17.4.2009 – An Israeli security forces personnel in uniform shoots Abu Rahmeh. The shooting is documented by three separate video cameras.
Due to the investigation policy at the time – which was changed only in 2011 – MPCID does not automatically investigate in case of death, unless explicitly ordered to by the Military Prosecution. The latter refuses to order an investigation of this case.
28.3.10 – Ten months after Abu Rahmeh’s death, the Military Prosecution provides an unusual argument for its refusal to order an MPCID investigation: the possibility that the grenade hit the fence and then ricocheted at Abu Rahmeh; the chance that the fact that Abu Rahmeh was standing on a rock when he was shot caused him “to converge” with the grenade’s course.
A reasonable person might think this is precisely what an investigation is supposed to find, since an unarmed demonstrator was shot during a non-violent demonstration, but apparently reasonable persons need not apply for work at the Military Prosecution.
3.6.10 – In response to the Military Prosecution’s peculiar statement, human rights organizations Yesh Din and B’Tselem do their work for them, and send the prosecution an expert opinion based on forensic architecture. As noted, Abu Rahmeh’s death was documented by three separate cameras, and the experts used the three videos to build a simulation showing where the shooter stood. According to this expert opinion, we don’t know the shooter’s identity, but we know where he was standing.
11.7.10 – Based on the expert opinion – new evidence obtained 15 months after the shooting – the Prosecution orders an MPCID investigation.
28.6.11 – Nearly a year after an MPCID investigation it initiated and 26 months after the killing, the Chief of the IDF Ballistics Department informs MPCID that “the only way such ordnance reached the target is if it was fired directly”, rather than above or below the target. That is, MPCID’s expert contradicts the Military Prosecution’s position from March 2010. We learned this bit only after the investigation was closed.
3.2.13 – Chief of the IDF’s Photo Reconnaissance Department informs MPCID that IDF orders forbid shooting directly at persons with this ordnance, and recommends the MPCID reconstruct the scene to establish where each of the shooters stood at the time of the shooting. MPCID refrained from conducting this elementary investigation. The Chief’s opinion came almost four years after the killing of Abu Rahmeh and almost 20 months after the Chief of the IDF’s Ballistics Department rules that the tear gas canister was indisputably fired directly at Abu Rahmeh.
3.3.13 – Some three years after the beginning of the MPCID investigation, we petition (with B’Tselem) the HCJ, demanding the Military Prosecution conclude the unending investigation and serve indictments – at the very least for negligent manslaughter.
September 2013 – The Military Prosecution closes the investigation, claiming it is unable to determine who shot Abu Rahmeh.
29.10.13 – Given the Prosecution’s decision to close the case, the HCJ rules that our petition is no longer relevant, but rules that “we are of the opinion that if there is an appeal, it must be dealt with speedily, so as not to delay proceedings further”.
4.11.13 – We request the investigative materials for preparation of an appeal.
27.3.14 – Five months pass before we receive part of the materials – not all of it.
7.4.14 – We request the missing material. Ten days before the fifth anniversary of Abu Rahmeh’s death.
27.5.14 – The missing material arrives.
24.7.14 – We appeal, with B’Tselem, including an expert opinion responding to the IDF’s opinion.
Our demands in the appeal were fairly simple: there are three suspects who admitted to firing extended-range tear gas grenades, and we wanted MPCID to carry out a complimentary investigation and implement the Chief of the Photo Reconnaissance Department’s recommendation to reconstruct the scene of the shooting to determine where each suspect stood. According to the data we gave MPCID, this would be enough to determine the identity of the shooter who killed Bassem Abu Rahmeh.
Furthermore, during the investigation of one of the three soldiers, he said that he not only fired tear gas grenade but he also took photos of the incident, and since MPCID did not bother to locate those photos, we wanted them to make an effort to. Let’s consider this for a moment: the Military Police’s Criminal Investigative Division heard, during an investigation of a killing, about the existence of evidence – and made no effort to obtain it.
A third point made in the appeal is the commanders’ responsibility for Abu Rahmeh’s death. An extended-range gas grenade is to be used at range of 200 meters or more; the demonstrators were much closer. From the investigation files we received we learned that most of the soldiers suspected of firing tear gas grenades during the demonstration complained during the investigation that they did not receive proper training on using the weapons they used, and furthermore, that they complained about this to their commanders previously. MPCID did not bother to investigate the commanders about this matter. Given that the investigation meandered on for more than three years, it’s will to be difficult to claim it was for lack of time.
Although the HCJ ordered that in the event of an appeal against the decision to close the case “it must be dealt with speedily,” and although our appeal included rather simple and clear demands, eight months have passed without any response from the prosecution.
Therefore, at the end of March, 2015 – nearly six years after Bassem Abu Rahmeh was killed – we were forced to petition the HCJ again, this time demanding a decision on the appeal.
During these six years, the Military Prosecution did its best not to investigate a relatively simple case of a man killed; six years in which human rights organizations had to provide the Prosecution with the evidence it itself did not bother to collect. During these six years, against the recommendation of IDF officers, MPCID did not reconstruct the scene of the crime to determine who stood where. In these six years, the IDF’s official investigative bodies did their negligent best to prevent the trial of a man who killed a non-violent protestor.
But when MPCID and the Prosecution carry out an investigation so unwillingly and so negligently it can barely be called an investigation, they put the soldiers at risk. To avoid a situation in which soldiers are tried outside their country, the investigation of the crime they carried out must be thorough and swift. No reasonable person would call the farce carried out by MPCID and the prosecution in the Abu Rahmeh case thorough or swift. If this is how they handle an investigation of a death, how do they investigate lesser offenses?