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A war of words broke out between the police and the Supreme Court yesterday over the latter's decision on Wednesday to double the sentence of a police officer convicted of killing a car thief in 2006, from 15 to 30 months in jail.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said he would seek a pardon for the officer, Shahar Mizrahi, and has already asked Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to help.

"I won't merely support a pardon bid, I'll lead it," said Aharonovitch, who lambasted the court's ruling.

"There's a large gap between what happened in the field and what happened in the courtroom," he said. "I respect the court's decision as a guardian of the law, but at the same time, this decision sends a terrible message to policemen."

Mizrahi claimed he opened fire in self-defense, as he believed Mahmoud Ganaim was trying to run him over. Both the trial court and the Supreme Court rejected this argument and convicted him of manslaughter.

Aharonovitch also phoned Mizrahi and vowed to do "everything I can for you," as "your fight has become all of our fight."

Police Commissioner David Cohen said he would set up a task force to discuss how the police could aid Mizrahi, including by backing his pardon request.

Many policemen were furious at the ruling. "Police detectives say this ruling will cause them to hesitate during operational activity," said one senior officer. "They say, 'the thought about whether to open fire or not will now take five seconds instead of half a second, and that puts our lives at risk.' This verdict changes the rules of engagement in a way that increases the danger to policemen in the field."

Another officer contrasted the case of Mizrahi, "who was sent to defend the citizens' safety and got 30 months in jail," with that of rancher Shai Dromi, who was not jailed for killing a trespasser and suspected thief, although "he was defending his own property, not the citizenry."

"What do they expect him [Mizrahi] to say - 'I'll die instead of defending myself?'" the officer asked.

Several retired senior police officers sent a letter to Cohen yesterday that voiced support for Mizrahi and proposed amending the law to provide "protection for policemen who exercise faulty judgment due to the complexity of their task."

MK Danny Danon (Likud ) vowed to submit such a bill, which would bar the indictment of policemen who opened fire because they thought their life was in danger from someone who had assaulted them or was trying to flee after committing a jailable offense.

In response to the onslaught, the Courts Administration issued a rare press statement defending the ruling. Both the trial court and the Supreme Court, it noted, concluded that Mizrahi opened fire while Ganaim was trying to drive away from the scene, and that Ganaim was driving too slowly to pose any threat to him. Moreover, Mizrahi had violated the police's own rules of engagement, which would at most have let him fire at Ganaim's legs.

Many ordinary citizens wrote or called the President's Residence yesterday to voice their outrage at the ruling and urge that Mizrahi be pardoned. The president can grant a pardon even if the convict has not requested it.

A pardon application, however, can only be filed by the convict or a relative acting at his behest - and not, say, by Aharonovitch or Cohen.