Chaim Pearlman, who is suspected of fatally stabbing at least three Palestinians more than a decade ago, was released yesterday to house arrest after spending 30 days in custody.
In a withering ruling, Petah Tikva Magistrate's Court Judge Nachum Sternlicht cast doubt on the integrity of the investigation and said the Shin Bet security service lacked sufficient evidence to file an indictment. Pearlman's release was delayed until this morning to give police enough time to appeal.
All the same, Pearlman is still the prime suspect, the Shin Bet said in a statement.
"The suspicions against Pearlman have not been refuted, and he remains the main suspect in carrying out these attacks," the statement said.
Yesterday the court heard prosecutors' sixth attempt to extend Pearlman's remand.
Sternlicht said Monday that police had insufficient evidence to file an indictment, but gave them two of the eight days they had sought to complete their investigation.
Pearlman was released to his parents' home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa after posting NIS 20,000 bail in cash.
The courtroom was filled almost to capacity yesterday, mostly with Pearlman's supporters.
Keren Pearlman, his wife, appeared holding a sticker with the words: "I too am a friend of Chaim Pearlman - arrest me." The Shin Bet has arrested, and then released, a number of the suspect's friends over the past month.
"These are serious allegations of murder, and the suspect has been held for a month," Sternlicht said at the end of the hearing. "Evidence that led to his arrest has been assembled, but it was not sufficient to file an indictment."
Attorneys representing the police told the court that one of the people Pearlman allegedly attacked had positively identified Pearlman as his assailant the day before.
The judge, however, said the evidence was insufficient.
"The suspect's picture has been reproduced everywhere for the past month," the judge said. "In these circumstances, it is difficult to attribute real significance to the evidence."
Yesterday's ruling was one of several instances indicating that Sternlicht sees the evidence as consisting primarily of remarks Pearlman made to Shin Bet agents and as inadequate to serve as the basis for an indictment. That is also the view of right-wing activists allied with Pearlman.
Sternlicht condemned the manner in which the Shin Bet handled another detainee in the case, a childhood friend of Pearlman's. That detainee told investigators he and Pearlman had attacked Arabs, but described incidents that can no longer be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations.
"Another individual linked to the suspect was questioned. The suspicions against him are more serious than those against Pearlman, but he was allowed to go free," Sternlicht said. "Pearlman has been discriminated against, and should therefore be released."
Source close to Pearlman said yesterday: "In a democratic country, a person must be released if there is no evidence. With all due respect to the gut feelings of the Shin Bet, it's unacceptable that a man be held in custody for a month, tortured and abused."
Questions over the Shin Bet's conduct
Even if the Pearlman case has reached its end, questions remain over the Shin Bet's conduct in the affair.
One of its agents, identified only as Dada, was recorded encouraging Pearlman to kill Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Pearlman was also kept from meeting with a lawyer for more than a week, until Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy ordered that he be granted legal representation.
Questions also remain over the exact number of killings attributed to Pearlman, and the suspect has accused the security service of abusing him while in custody.
In its statement yesterday the Shin Bet said: "An extended undercover investigation, conducted by the Shin Bet in coordination with the State Prosecutor's Office, had been pursued prior to the arrest and interrogation of Mr. Pearlman. The investigation raised serious suspicions - some of them based on remarks from the suspect himself - over Pearlman's personal involvement in a series of murders and other offenses."
"During the investigation the suspect was given many opportunities to present his version of events, but he decided not to respond to them or any of the suspicions raised by investigators," the statement said. "The Shin Bet views acts of terror seriously, regardless of who perpetrates them, and will continue using all the tools at its disposal to investigate these incidents, even if they occurred over a decade ago."
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