Israeli High Court Freezes Election-eve Probe Linked to Case of Ethiopian Teen Slaying

Justices order suspension of committee work aimed at reviewing the handling of complaints about a Justice Ministry unit that probes complaints of police misconduct

Justice Minister Ohana and Supreme Court President Hayut, February 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

The High Court of Justice on Monday issued a temporary stay blocking a government committee from launching any pre-election investigation into a Justice Ministry unit that probes police misconduct.

The committee named by Justice Minister Amir Ohana had been approved despite the objections of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who refused to defend it to the court.

Justices Hanan Melcer, Isaac Amit and David Mintz froze the committee's work pending a decision on two petitions filed against it. Their decision means that the committee shall not resume work before election on March 2.

Ohana said in response that "this is a regrettable decision by the high court in collaboration with the state attorney general." 

During Monday's session hearing the petitions submitted by a non-profit group called Mishmar Hademocratiya and private lawyers, the justices criticized Ohana's decision to appoint the committee at this time.

“The cabinet took the attorney general’s legal opinion and threw it into the trash can,” said Amit. “How many times has this happened in the history of the State of Israel? It is hard to remember such cases.”

The cabinet approved the establishment of the committee this month, and it has already begun its work – even though Mendelblit said there were legal issues with a caretaker government taking such a step.

First session of policeman's trial in February 2020 for Teka's shooting death. He's been charged with negligent homicide.
Rami Chelouche

Mendelblit, joining the petitioners, said he suspected the main reason for the panel being formed was to win more votes from Israelis of Ethiopian origin angry at a police officer’s fatal shooting of Ethiopian teen Solomon Teka last year. The officer was charged with negligent homicide earlier this month. Teka’s family has demanded tougher steps.

Ohana said he was naming a panel to investigate the issue alleging that the ministry unit handling complaints was not properly supervising the police. The cabinet appointed retired magistrate’s court judge Haran Fainstein as the investigative committee's chairman.

Amit criticized the urgency with which the committee was formed at a time when a transition government is in charge of the country, after two indecisive elections since April, a situation that has delayed implementation of many other decisions.

“ We have been stuck for a year and a half with a petition on why a director general has not been appointed for the Second Authority [for Television and Radio], and the state is telling us that we are now a transition government and it is difficult for us,” said Amit, adding with what seemed to be sarcasm: “It seems there it is very hard. There [the government] is acting with self-control and restraint.”

Amit said only four similar official investigative committees have been established in Israel’s history, and he is “insulted on behalf of the Ethiopian community, because all these other committees were chaired by Supreme Court justices," rather than a lower ranking retired magistrate.

Attorneys Ron Shapira and Aviad Bakshi, representing the government and Ohana, defended the committee as needed to heal the “wounded [Ethiopian] community and damaged social fabric.” 

"There is no reason for a complete government vacuum, and the committee will gather material now and the next government, if it wants the recommendations, will accept them, Shapira had told the court.