Charges against an Eritrean asylum seeker accused of assaulting an Israeli man in south Tel Aviv were withdrawn last month after six and a half years of legal proceedings.
The only evidence against the man was the testimony of the victim’s wife, who saw him handcuffed at the police station. There was no forensic evidence or security camera footage, nor did police conduct a lineup. Witnesses even said in court that they didn’t remember what the assailant looked like and had no idea what part the defendant played in the incident.
The defendant, who says he was an innocent bystander, is suing the state over the 13 days he spent in jail.
The assault occurred in July 2013, as an Israeli family passed through the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood in their car. When the father of the family stopped the car and got out, a man who was never apprehended, but who was later described as a foreign national with a knife, grabbed the door, presumably in order to steal the vehicle. He backed off, apparently after seeing the driver’s wife and children in the car.
The driver got back in the car and began to drive away, but a few people, also described as foreigners, started throwing rocks at the car. When the driver stopped at a red light, the unknown assailants pulled him out of the car, beat him and dragged him toward Levinsky Park, nearby. He was later treated for his injuries, and his wife and children received assistance for psychological stress.
Two men were arrested at the scene, including the defendant. When he entered the police station in handcuffs, the victim’s wife, who was there to give her statement, told police he was one of the assailants. She allegedly based her identification on the color of his shirt.
Four days later, police charged the defendant with assault and battery, based mainly on the wife’s testimony. The defendant said he had been drinking with friends nearby and witnessed the assault, but wasn’t involved. He said the assailants fled the scene. Even then, judges deemed the evidence weak, but police insisted on moving ahead with the case.
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Defendant vanishes – in state detention
The trial began in July 2014, but neither the witnesses nor the police officers supposed to testify showed up, reportedly due to heightened security tensions at that time.
The defendant also missed the hearing, which led Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Hadassah Naor to order him to be brought to court. When he still wasn't found, four months later, she issued an arrest warrant and suspended the trial.
The trial resumed in November 2018, after police found the defendant. At that point, it turned out that he had been in detention in the Holot facility due to an expired visa when police were searching for him in November 2016. He said he spent two months in Holot and had previously spent some months in a different facility. One of his public defenders, Elad Rath, said it was inconceivable that police never thought to look for him in detention.
The next hearing in the case was set for May 2020. The defense asked that it be moved up. They said their client was applying for a visa to the United States to reunite with his family there, including a daughter he had never seen, but would certainly be denied if he had a pending assault charge. The court agreed and advanced the hearing to December 2019.
Can't tell one from the other
The police officers who testified at that hearing, six years after the assault took place, said they barely remembered either the incident or the defendant. The victim said he could identify his assailant only by the clothing he wore, though he did remember that he had curly hair or dreadlocks, and could remember very few details about the incident.
When Judge Itai Hermelin asked whether he had trouble distinguishing one Eritrean from another, the victim agreed. “I can identify them only by their clothes,” he said.
His wife testified that she no longer remembered what the assailant looked like, but said that as far as she recalled, she had told police the defendant “was involved in the incident.”
When the defendant's public defender, Einat Barnea, asked the wife whether she could have been mistaken in her identification, she said it’s the police’s job to determine whether or not the defendant took part in the assault.
“The police need to take all investigative measures to find out whether the person standing before me is the guilty party or not, whether it’s obtaining camera footage or questioning witnesses who were at the scene,” she said, adding that all she knows is “who wore what during that situation.”
After hearing all this testimony, Hermelin advised police to withdraw the charges, but they did so only a few days later, after another hearing.
“When the case began ... the state thought there was evidence,” the prosecutor told the court. “But after the wife’s testimony, the whole balance of the evidence has shifted.”
In a statement, the defense said their client “endured years of delayed justice, during which he was prevented from uniting with his wife and daughter, who was born in the United States and whom he’s never met, just because the state, in its negligence, didn’t notice it was holding the defendant at Holot.” They added that the prosecution, “for no discernible reason,” objected to speeding up the trial, “and even after the case finally collapsed,” it tried to make the withdrawal of charges conditional on the defendant’s consent, “so the case wouldn’t be recorded in the Tel Aviv prosecution’s acquittals statistics.”
The police said this was a serious assault case that was delayed because the defendant couldn’t be found. “Contrary to what is being claimed, the defendant was in Holot for only two months in 2016, and there’s no connection between his stay there and the efforts to locate him.”