Top Justice Ministry Official Refused to Probe Israeli Teen's Death in West Bank Police Chase

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Protesters against the death of Ahuvia Sandak outside of Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, December 21, 2020.
Protesters against the death of Ahuvia Sandak outside of Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, December 21, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The head of a Justice Ministry unit for investigating police misconduct has ordered not to probe the police officers involved in the car chase that ended in a fatal accident, killing a teenage Israeli suspect, law enforcement sources said Thursday, as hundreds in Jerusalem protested the killing of Ahuvia Sandak in the crash.

The unit's chief, Keren Bar-Menachem, has refused to investigate the officers involved in the chase, arguing Sandak’s friends remained silent during their interrogations and therefore there was no one to file a complaint against the officers.

According to Israeli law, the unit is authorized to investigate any incident from the moment it learns of an offense, and does not have to wait for a formal complaint.

Sandak, 16, a resident of Bat Ayin in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, was killed Monday after police chased after him and his friends, who were suspected of throwing stones at Palestinians in the West Bank. Officers crashed into their car from behind, causing it to flip, fatally injuring Sandak and lightly to moderately injuring his friends.

Since his death, hundreds have been protesting every evening in the capital near the National Police Headquarters. Dozens have been arrested. During a protest in Jerusalem on Thursday night, 37 among the hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. Though most were released, 18 of them remained in jail on Friday morning. Police will ask the court to extend their detention.

Police said the protesters "disturbed the public order and clashed with police and passersby, and in a number of cases threw stones and eggs at police, damaged infrastructure and blocked light rail traffic."

Earlier this week, Deputy State Prosecutor Shlomo Lemberger ordered Bar-Menachem to investigate the officers. After that, investigators spoke to Sandak’s friends, but they refused to cooperate. On Thursday, the Justice Ministry unit announced that it has formed a joint investigative team to investigate the incident, and four police officers have been questioned under caution as criminal suspects

The law enforcement sources said that after the incident, the police investigation unit team summoned the officers involved for questioning. The officers came to the unit’s offices this week with their lawyers, but when Bar-Menachem was made aware of this, she ordered to discharge them without questioning them.

The sources said the police officers sent the Justice Ministry unit a report describing the incident five hours after they had been instructed to do so. 

The unit responded: "Immediately after the incident, Justice Ministry unit investigators arrived at the scene, and have since been carrying out investigative activity in order to examine the roles played by the officers in this incident. These decisions are made out of relevant and professional considerations," it said. "The way these things are being presented distort [the unit's] conduct in investigating the event."

The four suspects, who were lightly injured, claim that the car they had been in turned over after the detectives pursued them and crashed into them deliberately from behind. The youths are suspected of endangering drivers in addition to other offenses.

Their lawyers Adi Kedar and Nati Rom of the NGO Honenu told the police investigation unit that the youths will file a complaint only after their release from custody. The police in the West Bank passed the case to the Tel Aviv central unit, since its detectives had been involved in the incident.

The Bat Yam Youth Court ordered the release of two of the stone-throwing suspects, who are minors, to house arrest until January 7. The city's magistrate's court also ordered the release of the two adults to house arrest until the end of the month.

The police are now considering whether to file an appeal against the rulings. The police representative said in court that “the investigation is being conducted alongside and in coordination with the police investigation unit.”

Yamina lawmkaer Betzalel Smotrich wrote to Bar-Menachem on Thursday that he fears the investigation will be obstructed. “It’s unacceptable that the police officers involved are free and continue their work, and it’s unthinkable that in such a severe case, known suspects are not under arrest. This has a huge potential of obstructing the case,” he said.

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