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Verdict in Abu Khdeir murder delayed by mental health claims

The two minors are convicted of kidnapping and murdering 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem last year. Despite the judges’ assessment of guilt, however, no verdict is issued against the main suspect. The reason? A last-minute mental health assessment — in English. 

Hussein, the father of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was murdered last year, walks outside the district court in Jerusalem on November 30, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Hussein, the father of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was murdered last year, walks outside the Jerusalem District Court, November 30, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

A panel of Jerusalem District Court judges on Monday issued a verdict in the murder case of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who was kidnapped and burned alive by three Jewish Israelis last July.

The trial, which has seen frequent delays and stretched out over the course of a year, however, is not over. Although the judges convicted the two minors in the case of kidnaping and murder, the main suspect in the trial — Yosef Haim Ben-David — was not formally convicted, despite the judges saying they believe him to be guilty of all charges leveled against him.

Ben-David’s non-conviction arose as a result of a last-minute mental health assessment submitted to the court on Thursday which, unusually, was written in English by an Israeli psychiatrist. The report itself, and its provenance, have been kept firmly under wraps. Although the judges had already drafted their verdict, they nonetheless accepted the submission of the assessment, which must now be translated into Hebrew.

Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped in the early hours of July 2, 2014, as he was making his way to pray at the local mosque in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem. He was bundled into a car near his home, beaten unconscious, driven to a nearby forest and burned alive by Ben-David and two minors.

Suha (C), the mother of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was murdered last year, sits in the district court in Jerusalem on November 30, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Suha (C), the mother of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was murdered last year, sits in the district court in Jerusalem on November 30, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

The initial police response to and investigation of the murder was tainted by incompetence and institutionalized racism. One of their initial fraudulent claims was that Abu Khdeir was murdered by his own family after they discovered he was a homosexual. The libel was ravenously seized on by large swathes of an Israeli public unwilling to face up to one of “us” so brutally killing one of “them.”

Nonetheless, six Jewish Israeli suspects were arrested a few days later in connection with Abu Khdeir’s murder, three of whom were eventually put on trial.

The murder provoked violent demonstrations in East Jerusalem. On the sidelines of one such protest, Tariq Abu Khdeir, Muhammad’s cousin and an American citizen who was visiting his family for the summer, was beaten senseless by police. The policeman who beat him was recently sentenced to six weeks’ community service.

Suha, the mother of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was murdered last year, clasps a phone with a photo keyring of her son as she sits in the district court in Jerusalem on November 30, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Suha, the mother of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was murdered last year, clasps a phone with a photo keyring of her son as she sits in the district court in Jerusalem on November 30, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

The demonstrations provoked a draconian police response in East Jerusalem that is strikingly similar to what the city’s Palestinians have been subjected to over the last couple of months. Indeed, though tensions in East Jerusalem seemed to subside after the summer, the fuse lit by Abu Khdeir’s murder was never fully extinguished. The unrest-crackdown dialogue between Palestinians and Israeli security forces has now been going on for well over a year.

Muhammad Abu Khdeir.

Muhammad Abu Khdeir.

Hussein Abu Khdeir, Muhammad’s father, was ever-present at the trial of his son’s murderers and presciently expressed his fear that an insanity plea may prevent justice being served. In July last year, he said: “I am afraid… I think they will say that they were insane and give them a year or two, that’s all.” He reiterated his concerns outside the courtroom on Monday morning before the verdict came in.

Ben David’s lawyer, Asher Ohayon, is a representative of the right-wing “Zionist legal aid organization” Honenu, which has a track record of securing watered-down convictions for Jewish Israeli defendants accused of nationalist hate crimes.

Despite Ben David having pleaded insanity throughout the trial, no evidence was ever presented to support the claim — until last Thursday. Hussein Abu Khdeir, speaking after Monday’s verdict, said: “It’s all a lie. I’m afraid that the court will eventually get them off the hook. I want to see justice in the court. Where’s justice?”

The next hearing in Ben David’s trial, when the judges will deliver their ruling on the psychiatric evaluation, is scheduled for January 14, 2016.

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