Should the Israeli Innocence Project take up the case of Amiram Ben Uliel?
There is a quietly smoldering sense among the Israeli public that the confession that led to the conviction of Amiram Ben Uliel should be thrown out because it was obtained through “enhanced investigation techniques,” i.e. torture. Some people believe him innocent and just want him sent home. Others say that they do not know if he did it or not; however, since they do not trust the verdict because of the methods used to obtain his confession, they would like a retrial. In fact many contradictions in the case were not resolved.
Since he was found guilty in a court of law, newspaper reports announcing the failure of the Supreme Court appeal to vacate the confessions refer to Ben Uliel as “murderer” and “terrorist.” There has been the suggestion that those who balk at these monikers are perhaps racist, just as they see Ben Uliel to be, perhaps supporters of Jewish terrorism. Therefore, their opinions can be dismissed and their names besmirched, as an editorial in the Jerusalem Post did to MK Simcha Rothman.
The legal system, writes Haifa University Professor Arye Rattner, believes in the “rule of finality,” meaning that the verdict represents some absolute truth. It seems many of the public believe that as well, and that is to be expected. After all, societal law and order depends on trust in the judiciary.
The topic of wrongful conviction has not received the attention in Israel that it has in the United States. Yet we have had our notorious cases, the first of which was the exoneration of Amos Baranes, who was in prison between 1976 and 2002 for the murder of 19-year-old soldier Rachel Heller that he did not commit. At present, the public is witnessing attempts to clarify whether or not convicted murderer Roman Zadorov actually killed 13-year-old Tair Rada in Katzrin in 2006. [UPDATE Zadorov was finally acquitted on 30 March 2023.]
There are at least two parallels between the cases of Baranes and Ben Uliel: Firstly, in both cases, there was public pressure to find the perpetrator of the crime. Investigations were unproductive in both instances. Baranes seems to have been a convenient subject to target for prosecution given that at an early stage of the investigation he volunteered to help the police solve the crime because he knew the murder victim personally.
Anyone who watches television crime programs knows that it is not far-fetched to suspect someone who voluntarily comes forward to help in a murder case. But that should be only a take-off point, after which solid evidence must be sought.
In Ben Uliel’s case, there was both domestic and international pressure to find the culprit in the belief that it was a Jewish terrorist because of the Hebrew graffiti left at the scene. Why specifically Ben Uliel? That remains an unanswered question so far.
Secondly, when neither Baranes nor Ben Uliel confessed to their crimes, they were subjected to harsh means to “convince” them to say they did it. According to the Jerusalem Post, Baranes was subjected to four days of sleep deprivation and a violent interrogation. We do not have access to the details of the “enhanced interrogation” after which Ben Uliel confessed but his lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, said that he found it hard to digest the description he read of what Ben Uliel was subjected to. In both cases, the confession was the basis for conviction.
Hamed Zinati was found guilty of murder in 2007, his conviction the result of a confession “extracted under questionable circumstances,” according to Times of Israel. With magnanimity, he says “police, judges and prosecutors are so overloaded they have an incentive to wrap up each case as quickly as possible.” Four years later, he was acquitted of all charges but his life is now in shatters.
There has not been a culture of review of questionable convictions in Israel and the Israeli innocence project, called the Wrongful Convictions Clinic (WCC), opened only in 2012 under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Public Defender’s Office. Ironically perhaps, the American Innocence Project was initiated in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld of the law school associated with Yeshiva University in New York City.
Professor Rattner suggests that about 5% of prison inmates in Israel are innocent. That would be about 1000 people, but the true extent cannot be known unless all are afforded retrials, something that will never happen, of course. Academic publications claim that 14-25% of the falsely convicted were convicted because of false confessions.
The WCC receives about 30 requests a year for examination of claims of innocence. But since resources are limited, generally only one can be taken to court for retrial and even this one is not always accepted by the court. Since the establishment of the state, only 33 of the 700 requests have been accepted for retrial. Of these, 27 resulted in either acquittal or dismissal of charges by the prosecution without making it to court for a new trial.
Given the evidence that some cases involve miscarriage of justice and given that we know that coercive and manipulative interrogation techniques can produce a high number of false confessions, perhaps a re-examination of the high-profile case against Ben Uliel is in order for both him, personally, and the Israeli public, in general. If he is exonerated, it will cause a huge backlash against the justice system and a need for serious review of methods and procedures that will surely lead to renewed trust in the judiciary. If he is found guilty in a transparent case that the public can follow, trust will be a natural corollary effect. It is a win-win situation.
If the WCC has not yet taken on the Ben Uliel case, perhaps it should.
p.s. You can read Prof Rattner’s chapter on the subject of wrongful conviction (or the entire book on international perspectives on the topic). To read Rattner’s chapter, turn to page 270 of the document, which is 263 of the book — The Sanctity of Criminal Law – Thoughts and Reflections on Wrongful Conviction in Israel.
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Also published in Israel National News – Arutz 7