Justice Ministry May Wrest Authority to Indict Protesters From Israel Police

After criticism of police, state prosecutor would decide whether to indict.

Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel
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Police detaining Daphni Leef at a demonstration on Rothschild Boulevard in June 2012.
Police detaining Daphni Leef at a demonstration on Rothschild Boulevard in June 2012.Credit: Alon Ron
Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

The Justice Ministry, responding to judicial criticism of how the Israel Police have handled arrests and indictments arising from demonstrations, plans to transfer the authority to indict individuals in such cases from the police to the State Prosecutor’s Office, according to a ministry memorandum.

The memo, distributed Wednesday, focuses on the authority to indict individuals for breaking laws prohibiting public gatherings, rioting and failure to disperse. The move comes as the courts harshly criticized the Israel Police’s conduct after a number of indictments were canceled or the individuals were exonerated.

According to The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, since 2012, 40 indictments issued against protesters were canceled and 54 other individuals were cleared of all charges.

The decision was made by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni based on work by the ministry staff. Livni had considered consolidating the police prosecutors into the State Prosecutor’s Office, an idea that has been raised more than once. But the State Prosecutor’s Office, headed by Shay Nitzan, remains opposed to such efforts, claiming that they are impractical, requiring excessive resources and budget.

The State Prosecutor’s Office also expressed concern that work on the major cases it is currently handling would be harmed in light of the effort that would have to be invested in less-serious cases that the Israel Police generally handle. The chances of actually uniting the police prosecutors and the State Prosecutor’s Office are slim at this point.

At the same time, Livni's staff and others in the ministry are working to clarify which crimes are handled by which prosecuting entity, with an eye toward redistributing authority. Up to now the Israel Police have been responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor cases — those carrying a maximum sentence of three years in prison — and the State Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for crimes carrying a maximum three years or more. Over time this distribution of authority has become slightly blurred.

A year ago Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein sought to reexamine police decisions to bring to trial individuals who were arrested during the social protests. Weinstein’s request did not lead to any major changes, however, and he stopped intervening after some of the indictments issued against demonstrators were canceled.

Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Shammai Becker, who heard the case regarding indictments against social-protest leader Daphni Leef, spoke then about the distinctions made between Leef and other demonstrators.

In a ruling he handed down, he ordered that another demonstrator — protesting against the draft — be exonerated. The judge asked why the case against Leef was closed while similar cases against other individuals remained open. The judge wrote that his interest was piqued due to police testimony in court that “the demonstrator [Leef] was not quiet at all, but rather noisy….” Becker wrote sarcastically, “Good grief — a noisy protest. What of it? What’s wrong with some noise?”

The judge harshly criticized police personnel for not taking freedom of expression into account. “There is no problem with a noisy street,” he said. “On the contrary, let the street be noisy and bustling, let it be filled with pleasant and not so pleasant voices. That’s what democracy should look like. Let them protest, let them demonstrate, allow them to march, and please, let them have their freedom of expression.”

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