Israel's Police Watchdog Has Failed

Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial
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Israel border police officers at the protests against the death of Ahuvia Sandak in Jerusalem, December 2020.
Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial

The case of Ahuvia Sandak, a 16-year-old boy killed in a car crash during a police chase of youths suspected of throwing stones at Palestinians, offers more evidence of how the Justice Ministry’s unit that investigates police misconduct has lost its way.

Keren Bar Menahem, head of the unit, has made every possible mistake in her handling of the case. This comes on top of a decrease in the number of indictments of policemen, the continuous cooperation between the unit and the police, and the refusal to investigate senior officers suspected of crimes.

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Bar Menahem’s first mistake in this case was her refusal to investigate the suspicion that the police had deliberately sideswiped the car in which Sandak was riding with his four friends, which may have caused it to overturn. Bar Menahem forbade her investigators to summon four policemen for questioning, despite the assumption that they were involved in the incident.

They were only called in for questioning after several days, and after considerable pressure was exerted. Subsequently, Bar Menahem decided, in coordination with the deputy state attorney, Shlomo Lemberger, to take the unusual step of setting up a joint investigation committee with the police, which only intensified the lack of confidence the public has in both agencies.

Now Bar Menahem has decided, with the backing of her supervisors, to undermine freedom of the press. In another unusual move, one of the officers is being questioned on suspicion of obstructing the investigation – though not in connection with the accident or the delay in his and his colleagues’ questioning, but because he is suspected of giving his version of events over a week ago to Ma’ariv journalist Kalman Liebskind, a story given lots of space in the paper. For the grave allegation of speaking to a reporter, not only did Bar Menahem order him questioned, but detained him overnight.

Moreover, the unit denied the policeman the right to consult with his attorney, on suspicion that the attorney was also involved in the interview. This dealt a blow to the right of the policeman to legal counsel, and also to attorney-client privilege. This was an unfortunate decision that has no connection to the investigation of Sandak’s death. It only serves to deter suspects from speaking to journalists or even their own lawyers.

And if all this weren’t enough, on Sunday Liebskind was summoned to be questioned but the attorney general later cancelled that. The questioning of journalists and journalistic sources in an effort to extract information from them is a serious blow to freedom of the press, and thus to democracy.

The media’s job isn’t simply to make do with official statements by the establishment, but to dig for the truth without being threatened by the regime. The Justice Ministry unit is meant to defend citizens from violent or corrupt cops. Under Bar Menahem, the department seems to have lost its focus. Now it is even undermining the public’s right to know how an investigation she’s responsible for is being carried out. She is not the right person for this job.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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