The charges against the Palestinian man suspected of raping a seven-year-old girl in a West Bank settlement were dropped on Tuesday in a surprising turnaround, marking an unexpected development in a case fraught with legal complications and contradictions.
Israel's military prosecution, which handled the high-profile investigation, released a joint statement with the Israel Police in which it said that there is evidence in the case to show that the girl was sexually assaulted, as well as evidence "pointing at the involvement" of the suspect, Mahmoud Qatusa. However, officials involved in the investigation "are all of the opinion that there isn't enough evidence to file charges against Qatusa."
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Officials also agree that "there is a need for further investigation... concerning Qatusa, as well as following other leads."
Qatusa, a resident of the West Bank village of Deir Qadis, was indicted initially for the kidnapping and rape of the girl he had met at the school where he was employed as a maintenance worker.
Upon his release on Tuesday afternoon, Qatusa said he was innocent. "I have a lot to explain about what happened," he said. "I am a clean man. I know myself. I told them all the time, 'I am not that person.'"
Speaking at a press conference, the 46-year-old maintenance worker said he is 100 percent innocent. "It felt like a [bad] movie. I shouted, but nobody listened to me. From the very beginning I've been telling the police I'm not the person they are looking for. I though the police were kidding with me since I never thought something like this would happen to me."
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Qatusa added he never saw the 7-year-old child or her mother. "I don't know any of them. You can ask anyone in town who is Mahmoud Qatusa. I'm an innocent man, and even if the entire world is against me I know my hands are clean."
"I have nothing against the child or her family. I was taught Arabs and Jews are treated the same. I have friends in the settlement [where the child and her family live] and they know who I am. My reputation is tarnished and my family is devastated. I still don't know if I'll return to the settlement, but first I intend to reunite with my family. I don't wish on anybody to go through what I've been through," he said.
Commenting on the results of the lie detector test, Qatusa said: "It was the first time I was placed under arrest. I didn't understand what was going on. I told [the investigator] I didn't do anything.
"My message to the police is that if a man is arrested for something, they should thoroughly check all the facts. A man can go to prison for nothing. If I would have witnessed a rape, I would have stopped it. I told my family everything is a lie, there isn't any other way to describe it. When I read the indictment, I was shocked," Qatusa said.
The original indictment alleged that he had developed a relationship with the child over an extended period, engaging her in conversation and giving her candy.
"Thank God," one of Qatusa's family members said following the decision to drop charges against him. "We've been saying from the first moment that there's no chance Mahmoud would ever do such a thing. We can't even describe how happy we are."
Qatusa's lawyer, Nashef Darwish, told Army Radio on Tuesday: "Better late than never. I don't think a pedophile was released due to police negligence, but rather that an innocent man was held in detention for a month and a half" for no reason that has to do with the investigation.
"I'm convinced this case will be investigated further, and it should examined well," he added. This case, Darwish argued, "says a lot about the way the judiciary handles anything that has to do with Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line."
A botched investigation
Meanwhile, the Israeli army's advocate general, Sharon Afek, is expected to call for a probe into the military prosecution's handling of the investigation.
The probe will begin only when the investigation of the rape concludes. It is expected to examine the conduct of all the entities in the military prosecution who were involved, including the army's chief proseuctor Avi Halbi, who did not update Afek on the fact that the investigation was underway. Afek had only learned that the case existed after he heard about it from media reports.
The probe is also expected to look into the decision-making by the prosecution, and check why it hadn't demanded that the police carry out basic investigative actions to strengthen evidence against the suspect.
The Israeli army's spokesperson's unit told Haaretz: "After the investigation [into the rape] will be closed and at the earliest date possible, we will hold a process to look into how the case was handled in order to draw all the necessary conclusions and implement them."
Qatusa's remand was extended on Wednesday by a military court. Police claimed it has new information received from social services, which it would look into. It also said that should the information not be verified, it would consider dropping charges.
The victim was questioned again on Monday by a special interrogator for juveniles.
Haaretz reported Monday that a lie detector test given to Qatusa was in Hebrew and not in Arabic, his native language. This adds to previous reports of irregularities in the investigation, which Military Advocate General Sharon Afek said in Tuesday's statement he would look into.
During the first test, conducted at the settlement’s police station five days after his arrest, Qatusa was asked whether he raped the girl and answered in the negative. The examiners decided it was impossible to achieve unequivocal results and later conducted a second test with the same questions, in which they said he was found to be lying.
His attorney said that although Qatusa speaks Hebrew, the fact that he was not tested in Arabic is further proof of negligence by the investigative team. “It’s clear to all that such a test must be conducted in the suspect’s mother tongue,” he said.