Man Claiming Innocence in Murder of Israeli Teen Released From Prison After 27 Years

Convicted of the gruesome murder of Hanit Kikos, Suleiman al-Abeid has spent more than a quarter of a century in prison – but no-one knows if he's guilty

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
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Suleiman al-Abeid after his release from prison, June 17, 2020.
Suleiman al-Abeid after his release from prison, June 17, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

Suleiman al-Abeid, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 17-year-old girl, Hanit Kikos, in 1993, was released from Ma’asiyahu Prison on Wednesday after serving 27 years behind bars.

Abeid’s case prompted a large number of questions over the years. Jurists such as former Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner – and even members of Kikos’ own family – have argued for years that Abeid was not Kikos’ killer.

Abeid himself maintained his innocence throughout his years of incarceration. He refused treatment or rehabilitation in prison, which made him ineligible for early release. Nevertheless, President Shimon Peres reduced his prison term from 33 to 27 years, on the recommendation of Friedmann, who was justice minister at the time.

Kikos, from the southern town of Ofakim, disappeared on July 10, 1993. She was last seen at a hitchhiking post at the entrance to the town while on her way to the birthday party of a friend in Be’er Sheva. Abeid, who was 44 at the time and lived in the nearby town of Rahat with his wife and children, was working as a steam shovel operator at a garbage dump near the highway between Ofakim and Be’er Sheva. Several professional opinions issued in his case stated that he suffered from a mental disability.

Police arrested him about a week after Kikos’ disappearance after a garbage truck driver reported seeing Abeid sitting alone in a car at the dump on the night of the girl went missing. The truck driver said Abeid told him he was waiting in the car because the security guard at the dump, Mohammed Bahri Shehadeh – who for a time was the primary suspect in the case – was having sex with the girl in a guard hut and Abeid hadn’t wanted to disturb him.

Under interrogation, Shehadeh and Abeid both denied involvement in Kikos’ disappearance. Later on, police placed an informer from the Shin Bet security service in Abeid’s jail cell with him, who for several days attempted to earn the suspect’s confidence. Initially, Abeid continued to maintain his innocence, but later admitted that he had picked Kikos up in his car and that he had raped and killed her and then threw her body out of the car.

Under questioning immediately following those remarks, he said he had picked Kikos up at the Gilat junction, about four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the hitchhiking post where she had last been seen. He admitted that he raped her, beat her and strangled her before throwing her body out of the car near the Sde Teiman military base.

Despite its importance, this interrogation was the only one in the case that police did not record, which subsequently raised considerable doubt. Abeid repeated his confession the same day and reenacted the crime, taking investigators to the bridge where he said he had gotten rid of Kikos’ body.

But a thorough search of the area failed to turn up anything, and five days after the confession, following a meeting in his prison cell with a lawyer, he recanted. He said he had lied in saying that he had picked up Kikos in his car and raped and killed her. A considerable time later, in a television interview, he claimed that his interrogators had sexually abused him by touching his private parts.

Police had not found Kikos’ body, and despite the fact that apart from Abeid’s confessions, there was no other substantial evidence presented against him, a panel of three Be’er Sheva District Court judges convicted him of murder and rape. Two of the three judges, Gilad Giladi and Zvi Segal, based their verdict in part on Abeid’s strange conduct in coming to the dump earlier than usual on the day of Kikos’ disappearance.

Pictures of Hanit Kikos in her parents' home, Rishon Lezion, Israel, 2008.Credit: Nir Kafri

The two judges accepted the state’s position that Kikos’ body must have been in the dump, but that because of the huge quantity of garbage there, it was impossible to find. The third judge on the panel, Neal Hendel, now a Supreme Court justice, dissented, saying Abeid should be acquitted due to doubts posed by the many inconsistencies between his confession and other evidence.

Abeid appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, but on June 11, 1995, while his appeal was pending, laborers working just outside of Be’er Sheva at Neot Hatzerim found the remains of a skeleton in a hole enclosed with a concrete cover. Forensic testing performed abroad confirmed that the skeleton was that of Hanit Kikos. A blouse and bra were found with the skeleton but Kikos’ slacks, underwear and shoes were not found in the hole.

Because the skeleton was found at a site far from where Abeid said he’d thrown the girl’s body, the guilty verdict was quashed and the case returned to the same panel of judges for rehearing. Despite the new evidence, Abeid was again convicted by the same two judges. Hendel again dissented, this time saying Abeid should be acquitted not just on reasonable doubt, but should be fully cleared of suspicion.

In 1996, the Supreme Court granted the defendant’s appeal of his murder conviction, but denied his appeal on the rape conviction and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. But on a rehearing of the appeal in 1997, before an expanded panel of nine Supreme Court justices, his murder conviction was reinstated as well, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Two of the justices dissented, voting to acquit him, while a third would have upheld the rape conviction alone.

In 2009, as noted, President Peres reduced Abeid’s sentence to 27 years, on the recommendation of Justice Minister Friedmann, who based his position on the prisoner’s personal circumstances and, as Friedmann put it, because “in this case, in all of the legal deliberations at various court levels, there were polar disagreements among the judges, to the extent that leaves one with a sense of uneasiness.”