LGBT Activist Implicated in Gay Youth Center Shooting Released to House Arrest

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The Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on Friday lifted its gag order on the identity of a gay activist arrested in connection with a deadly 2009 shooting rampage at the gay youth center, Barnoar. 

Shaul Ganon, 50, one of the founders of the Barnoar center, where the shooting took place, was released from jail Friday morning to two weeks of house arrest. Police suspect Gonen of having had sexual contact with a 15-year-old boy.

In a Channel 2 interview on Friday evening, Ganon said he was shocked by the murders. "In no point in my life have I done anything that in my worst nightmares that I could expect to lead to such a horrific crime," he said. When asked about the motives to the Barnoar shooting, he said that he "supposes there is a probability I was the one they tried to murder."

The Tel Aviv Police has in recent days pressed Ganon to turn state's witness. Investigators are convinced he will not admit to sexually assaulting the boy out of fear for his life and hope his testimony would supply a motive for the shooting, which killed two people and injured 15 others.

The police believe the boy told his relative, Hagai Felician, that Ganon raped him, prompting Felician, a man named Tarlan Hankishayev and a third man, who is now a state's witness, to attack the center in an attempt to target Ganon for revenge. Ganon's testimony could also undermine the credibility of the murder suspects, who claim not to know him.

The arrest of Ganon last week shocked the gay community, in which he is a prominent figure. Gay activists, colleagues, friends and youth who Ganon has counseled continue to insist he is innocent. They say he has helped hundreds of young gay people negotiate the hardships of revealing their sexual identity and has before never been the subject of a complaint.

Ganon began volunteering with the Israeli National LGBT Task Force 19 years ago as an emergency hotline operator and coordinator for youth in distress. In 1997, he took the lead in the task force's efforts to help Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Over the years, he found shelter for Arabs who felt their lives were in danger after coming out of the closet. In 2003, he was appointed general director of the task force but resigned after less than a year.

Eight years ago, Ganon founded the Barnoar center on Nachmani Street, which served an important role in the community as a resource and safe haven for gay youth. At the same time, Gonen worked in the Social Affairs Ministry Institute for Rehabilitation of Juvenile Delinquents.

"Shaul is a wonderful person who helped so many young people rise from difficult situations and be active, serve in the army and live a normal life. After I was thrown out by my parents, I came to the Barnoar, where Shaul guided and directed me. I later became a counselor thanks to him," said Chen Langer, a former counselor at the Barnoar center, who was wounded in the shooting.  

"I can't believe the police's version. I have a completely different scenario. If someone was hurt, I sympathize, but I cannot believe these suspicions."

Gil Fischhoff, the center's hotline and support coordinator sees the situation similarly.

"The number of good deeds this man has done is far beyond any other person I know. He saved young people from a life of prostitution, worked on the hotline and helped Palestinians who escaped from the Palestinian Authority. He is a man who has devoted his life to helping others. The actions he is accused of are incompatible with the person who devoted his soul and every free moment he had, to helping others. He saved dozens if not hundreds of young people. Whoever knows him is shocked and simply doesn't believe it."

Still, Fischhoffs said, "If it turns out that the accusations are justified, we will unequivocally deplore these actions."

Fischhoff says he never heard complaints about Ganon or rumors of him having sexual contact with minors.

"I have known Shaul for more than 15 years," he said. "I've never heard any such rumor, and if we had heard anything we would have dealt with it. All the association's projects and actions are supervised by social workers, with the Social Affairs Ministry. Our organizational culture nurtures an open atmosphere, one can complain or report. One cannot reach conclusions based on one case that we don't know ever really happened. If anyone had heard of such a case, he could have complained and received all the support possible. The association does not have a culture of denial or cover ups."

A gay activist who asked to remain anonymous said rumors of sexual contact with minors surrounded some community members, but not Ganon.

"I never heard anything of the kind concerning Shaul," he said. "The association is very prudent on such matters. I believe that if anyone had heard anything to that effect, it would have been dealt with. It will be interesting to see if other young people complain after the gag order is removed."

The Barnoar center urged against jumping to conclusions.

"At present we still don't know all the details, but we're positive that the truth will emerge," an employee at the center said. "If the accusations are indeed grounded in facts, we will condemn Ganon despite his numerous good deeds and learn the lessons. Still, one should wait for the investigation to be completed before he is found guilty."

Following the removal of the gag order and the publication of Ganon's identity, the center issued a statement saying, "As every other volunteer who worked with youths, he was screened by us and by the police for past criminal offenses before he began his voluntary work; the Barnoar itself is under constant supervision by the Social Affairs Ministry As far as we know, during his eight years of voluntary work at the Barnoar there was never any complaint by the thousands of adults and youths he assisted, many of whom were treated by social workers and psychologists who are trained to identify distress. Therefore the severe accusation has shocked us and the entire gay community."

On Thursday, it was revealed that a woman who underwent a sex change told police that a decade ago – before her sex-change operation – Ganon tried to rape her. Police say the testimony is not legally significant, because the woman was not a minor at the time and so much time has elapsed since the alleged incident. In recent days, media outlets have published several other similar testimonies, but police have only received the one complaint.

Police say they believe that even without Ganon's testimony, they have enough evidence to indict the three suspects in the shooting. Although they had to end the undercover work of the state's witness earlier than they wanted out of fear for his life, the operation yielded recordings connecting the suspects to the murder, they say.

Police are enraged with the state witness' behavior since the case hit the headlines with the arrest of the three suspects last week. They say the witness was asked to keep a low profile but instead met strangers in his secure hiding place, and talked to strangers on the phone and on his Facebook account. Police fear various people may try to extract and record testimony from him that contradicts what he told police for use in court.

Shaul Gonen at a Tel Aviv court, June 14, 2013. Credit: David Bachar

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