Soldier convicted in U.K. activist's death
Sergeant Taysir al-Heib was convicted of manslaughter by a military court yesterday in the death of British peace activist Thomas Hurndall.
Al-Heib shot Hurndall in the head in an incident in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in April 2003. Hurndall, a student, was photographing the work of International Solidarity Movement activists at the time. He died some nine months later in a hospital in Britain.
The court, at the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command, also found al-Heib guilty of obstruction of justice, giving false testimony and inducing comrades in his unit to bear false witness.
Sentencing was set for a later date. Al-Heib, the first soldier to be convicted of manslaughter in the current intifada, could face a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.
Hurndall's father and brother arrived in Israel early yesterday to attend the verdict hearing. His brother's entry into the country was denied due to "security reasons," but his father Anthony was present when the verdict was read out.
Al-Heib initially claimed he had fired on an armed Palestinian, enlisting supporting testimony from another soldier in his unit. A few months later, however, the second soldier told Military Police investigators that he had not witnessed the incident.
In the verdict yesterday, the judges, headed by Colonel Nir Aviram, upheld all the arguments of the military prosecution, outlining and emphasizing the series of false and contradictory versions of the incident provided by al-Heib throughout the investigation.
The judges found that al-Heib had shot Hurndall with a sniper's rifle, using a telescopic sight, and that al-Heib had given a "confused and pathetic" version of events to the court.
The court also referred to a confession by the defendant in which he said he had wanted to teach Hurndall a lesson for entering a forbidden zone. Al-Heib admitted to aiming 10 centimeters to the left of Hurndall's head to frighten him and inadvertently shooting the activist.
"From that moment, Sergeant al-Heib began a broad campaign of lies and falsehoods to throw off the expected investigation and to exonerate himself of any guilt," the verdict said.
Defense lawyer Yariv Ronen had charged that Hurndall did not die as a direct consequence of his client's actions, but because of malpractice by Hurndall's British doctors. The court rejected these arguments.
Hurndall's sister, Sophie Hurndall, praised the verdict, but said the IDF must change its practices. "This kind of thing needs to stop happening. Until that has changed... we won't really have won," she told British media.
Anthony Hurndall called the verdict "limited justice." He said the killing was "part of a culture of impunity in Israel," adding, "That is a great disappointment... They are letting their own country down."
Kim Howells, a minister in the British Foreign Office, welcomed the verdict. "I have every sympathy for the family and I hope that they will draw some comfort from this conviction," he said.
Hurndall's mother, Jocelyn, told British media earlier in the day that Israel had denied entry to two of her sons who had wanted to attend the trial. "They were detained at the airport," she said. "We find it wholly unacceptable."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the government had discussed such a visit with British officials. "Unfortunately, it appeared the purpose of the visit wasn't strictly innocent," he said. "As a result, the family chose not to take up our offer for them to attend the legal proceedings."
An Israeli official who asked not be named said Hurndall's brothers had declined to sign a guarantee they would not take part in pro-Palestinian demonstrations while in the country.