Israeli Soldier's Lawyers Accuse Judge of Bias in Hebron Shooting Case

During written summation, defense attorneys question approach of Military Court justice Col. Maya Heller toward the Israeli soldier in his manslaughter trial.

Sgt. Elor Azaria in Jaffa Military Court, October 2016.
Moti Milrod

The defense lawyers representing Sgt. Elor Azaria on Sunday questioned whether the presiding judge in the manslaughter trial is capable of trying the case objectively.

Azaria is accused of killing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in Hebron last March, when the Palestinian was lying wounded on the ground after stabbing an Israeli soldier.

His attorneys made the claim when submitting their written summations to the military court, at the conclusion of the trial’s evidence stage.

The oral summations of the prosecution and defense teams will be heard on Wednesday. After that, a date will be set for deciding whether Azaria will be convicted or acquitted of the manslaughter charge. The verdict is expected around the end of the month.

Presiding Judge Col. Maya Heller, right, with her fellow judges in the manslaughter trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, July 2016.
Moti Milrod

Azaria’s defense attorneys claimed the behavior of the head of the three-judge panel, Col. Maya Heller, was “strange,” after she asked Azaria, “in front of all the media and those present in the courtroom, ‘Why are you squirming?’”

The attorneys believe these words, said regarding a question Azaria had answered many times, “caused the defense to believe that her honor the presiding judge is incapable of judging objectively in this case.”

They also accused Heller of “closely following the prosecutor by completing cross-examinations for him, and making decisions in a manner that was not balanced.”

The defense lawyers also highlighted Heller’s cross-examination of the deputy commander in Azaria’s unit. Heller asked the officer whether he tried to be precise in his words – “or did you just say what you felt like?”

“We didn’t see the judge turning to a witness who was summoned by the prosecution and asking him a disdainful question the way she asked the deputy company commander,” the lawyers wrote in their summation.

“The defense can only hope that the judging in this case will be done by her honor the presiding judge based on the evidence brought before the respected court,” they added.

“It should be clarified that there was no such feeling regarding the Hon. Judge Sitbon or the Hon. Judge Wahabi [the other two judges on the panel] during the entire course of the proceedings.”

Last Friday, the Israel Defense Forces announced that, based on the decision of the committee for appointing military judges, Heller will be appointed a judge in the Military Court of Appeals.