Amiram Ben Uliel: Guilty, or a victim of political expediency?
Can this contradiction-laden criminal case, that condemned a young Amiram Ben Uliel to a life in prison, be considered a trial of political expediency carried out mainly because of internal and extenal pressure? Or is he really guilty? Will the justice system conduct a serious self-interrogation, essentially putting itself on trial? Or will the actors involved continue to keep things hushed up and behind a wall of nontransparency “for reasons of national security?”
Because of the many contradictions, listed below, it is difficult for much of the public to trust the verdict in the Amiram Ben Uliel trial; he was found guilty of setting fire to a house in the Palestinian Arab town of Duma in 2015, causing the deaths of three people and leaving a 4-year-old boy orphaned and badly burned.
On Thursday (1 September), the Supreme Court rejected the latest appeal submitted by Avigdor Feldman on behalf of Uliel, bringing him back into the news.
The Israeli public consistently stands against violence and terror and if the terrorist is a Jew, that position does not change. If that is not clear to all, then just consider the overwhelmingly agonized reactions when the brutal murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jews came to light. The reaction to the disclosure of the Duma arson was similarly immediate: shock and horror.
Given the verdict, it makes sense that news reports refer to Ben Uliel as a murderer and terrorist. However, when the story first broke articles pointed out the possibility that, in spite of how it looked at first, because of the Hebrew graffiti on the wall, it was possibly not a Jewish crime. Therefore, contradictions that have not been sufficiently addressed render much of the public wary of fully trusting the outcome of the case.
Part 1: Torture
Before listing the contradictions, none of which are being raised in the media at present, it is important to discuss the use of torture – enhanced interrogation – to produce the confessions upon which the conviction was based.
Feldman, a human rights lawyer who generally represents anti-Israel activists, took on this case of an ultra-Orthodox “hilltop youth” because of his concern with the use of torture in obtaining confessions. He was not trying to prove Ben Uliel innocent but trying to vacate the confessions.
When arrested, Ben Uliel maintained his silence for 17 days before the torture began. He had not seen a lawyer. On the 21st day, his captors were required to let him see legal counsel and they began the use of “enhanced interrogation” in these last few days. Finally, they got their confession.
The confessions obtained immediately after the torture were tossed out of court, but the law accepts confessions obtained over 36 hours after the torture ceases, with the rationale that the torture no longer affects the accused and the confession is then voluntary and not forced.
It is safe to say that torture is traumatic, especially for a 21-year-old man who had not been arrested before.
It is also safe to say that just being arrested can be traumatic. I was once questioned under caution because of a lie someone told about me and, while I knew that I had done nothing wrong, I shook throughout the interrogation and was not sure the police officer would believe me until I walked out of the station.
To have spent 17 days under arrest, as Ben Uliel did, cut off from the rest of the world, undergoing repeated interrogations with officers who were convinced of his guilt, was surely already traumatic. Then add to that the torture — descriptions of which Feldman said he found difficult to read. The impact of that does not dissipate in 36 hours and perhaps not in 36 weeks or 36 months, especially when these later confessions were taken from him within the same environment and to the same people who had been torturing him.
In Israel, enhanced interrogation is only allowed when an individual is deemed to be a “ticking bomb,” meaning that intelligence information has shown that this individual is part of a terrorist organization planning an imminent attack. But Ben Uliel was deemed by the court not to be a member of a terrorist organization and he certainly could not carry out an attack while in prison. This means that the only reason for the enhanced interrogation, in his case, was to force a man stubbornly sticking to his claims of innocence to cease and desist from that and say what they needed him to say.
Why did they need Ben Uliel to confess? There was international pressure to find a culprit for this crime. Given the Hebrew graffiti, it was accepted that the perpetrator must be a Jew. Months later, with growing frustration at the lack of progress, Ben Uliel and two minors were arrested. It has never been made clear what led to the arrest of these particular three people. But they had to be found guilty. It was important to show that Israel prosecutes Jewish murderers of Palestinian Arabs and not just Palestinian Arab terrorists.
In the end, one of the minors was found guilty of helping Uliel plan the attack and Uliel was found guilty of carrying it out. The fact that they were ultra-Orthodox hilltop youth, a group vilified by part of the Israeli population and leadership, may have made it appear the conviction would go unchallenged by the public. And this is true to some extent.
Part II: Ben Uliel Retrial?
Were the court to have decided, in this latest appeal, that all the confessions obtained through torture are inadmissible, I believe that the case would need to be retried. Given that shortly after the arrests, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon both admitted there was not enough evidence to prosecute, and given the contradictions listed below, a retrial might exonerate Amiram Ben Uliel.
Should that happen, the public would be exposed to a serious miscarriage of justice and the search for the real perpetrators of murder would have to be resumed in the now-cold case. It might result in suits being filed against those involved in the original interrogations and trial. And we might see an explosion of wrongful conviction cases added to the twenty or so successful cases so far in this country (the innocence project is relatively new in Israel). Perhaps these are the reasons behind the latest rejection of the appeal.
On the other hand, if he were to be found guilty in a more transparent re-trial, faith in the justice system would be restored and we could sleep well at night knowing that the man in jail really is guilty.
Part III: The inconsistencies
Look at the inconsistencies and contradictions reported in the media when the case broke and see what you think might happen, and remember – these are not necessarily facts but pieces of potential evidence that should be brought to a trial and substantiated or refuted under oath. Then, we will be able to say that justice has been done.
- There were a number of cases of arson in Duma before and after this particular one. It was common knowledge that arson was used in the inter-clan conflicts rampant during that time. Was there an attempt to find potential culprits within the town?
- Initial eye-witness reports claimed there were between two and four arsonists and that they got away by car. Ben Uliel was accused of working alone and being on foot.
- His wife said he was with her all night and his voice could be heard on the phone by a friend who called that night. According to his wife, he could not have gone out after the phone call because from 5 am he was looking after his daughter and he would not have had time to commit the crime and get back home in time.
- The houses torched were deep in the town and not the more easily targeted buildings at the edge of town. How did he get into town, commit the crime, write two graffiti messages on walls and get away without having been caught? And why did he not have anyone with him in case he was in danger? Martin Sherman of the Israel Institute of Strategic Studies questions how a militarily untrained young man would have had the ability to carry out the attack on his own.
- An expert graphologist determined that the two graffiti messages, one of which was a specifically Chabad-type message, were written by two different people and Ben Uliel was not one of them. Furthermore, would Ben Uliel, who was not in the Chabad Movement have written the Chabad-type message? The writing style also suggests Arab calligraphy.
- The house of Ibrahim Dawabsha, a key witness for the defense, was set on fire and it was believed to be in retaliation for his evidence.
This is a slightly modified version of an article that first appeared in World Israel News.