President Shimon Peres would presumably have preferred to forgo the need to commute the sentences of five prisoners convicted of murdering the young Danny Katz 24 years ago. Within hours of his decision becoming known, Peres was once again accused of appeasing the Arabs.
Peres did the right thing: A committee headed by a judge recommended that the sentence be commuted, and the justice minister adopted the recommendation and passed it on to the president, as is the accepted practice. Peres would have had a harder time justifying a refusal to commute the sentence. The result is that three of the prisoners will go free within a relatively short time, while two will be released only in another few years, because they were also convicted of murdering Israel Defense Forces soldier Dafna Carmon.
There are very few Israelis who have had the chance to defend their claim to innocence in front of so many judges, including Supreme Court justices, over and over again, or who were granted a retrial but still allowed to appeal the ruling. From that perspective, one can say that the justice system treated them fairly. But the courts also repeatedly found them guilty.
These rulings strengthened the obligation, as well as the readiness, to critically evaluate judicial verdicts. Judges deserve respect not just because of their knowledge as jurists, but also because of the entire range of traits that make up their "judicial temperament," including integrity and decency. But sometimes, judicial truth alone does not suffice: It can often be understood only in the context of the social and political circumstances from which it arose.
In this case, the judges ruled over and over that the five defendants conspired to murder a Jewish boy. To convict someone, there is no need to demonstrate motive, but in the nature of things, that is the first question "a reasonable person," as the jurists say, would ask: Why did the defendants conspire to murder a Jewish boy? From the day they were arrested, the answer appeared to be abundantly clear: because they are Arabs.
The five were comprised of two groups of Israeli Arabs who did not know each other beforehand, even though they worked at the same supermarket in the Carmel region. They had no political background, and the Shin Bet security service determined that they did not have a nationalist motive. According to the sentence, after they murdered Katz, four of the five sexually violated his corpse. This raises a serious question, since necrophilia is a very rare disorder. The judges ruled that the five hid the body and then transferred it to another concealed location - a cave near Sakhnin, where three of them live. It was never made clear why they would have done this.
From the day their first trial opened until today, all five prisoners have maintained their innocence - even though expressing remorse might have improved their prison conditions and hastened their release. As the years passed, new doubts arose, based, inter alia, on scientific tests.
Even among the investigators and within the prosecution and the courts, not everyone was convinced that the five suspects were guilty. But these doubts did not work in their favor. Therefore, there is no escaping the historical thesis that the defendants were convicted because they were Arabs, and that if they had been Jews, they might have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt.
This thesis tarnishes the justice system and puts the case in the context of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. Over the years, the case has also become embedded in the basic conflict between left and right. The left failed this real-life test, supplying further evidence of the meagerness of its influence.
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