When Israelis are accused of victimizing Palestinians, nearly 25% of convictions are simply thrown out — to avoid tarring the criminal with a criminal record.
By Yossi Gurvitz, written for Yesh Din
Every year Yesh Din publishes data about police investigative failures regarding crimes carried out by Israelis against Palestinians in the West Bank. They are usually quite similar: the police fails to investigate approximately 85 percent of complaints by Palestinians who report being harmed by Israelis. The rate becomes much higher when it comes to the destruction of Palestinian trees by Israeli civilians: that’s when the police failure rate reaches 97.4 percent.
The average Israeli may not be surprised to find that the police failure rates are so high, but he or she still has some expectations of the courts. After all, we are told time and again that Israel is governed by the rule of law.
Okay, the average citizen says to himself, we seem to have a problem when it comes to investigations, and naturally, if the investigation is a mess we are not likely to get to court. But once we step into the halls of justice, everything should be fine.
Yesh Din’s latest data sheet, which was released in tandem with an exhaustive report on the failure of law enforcement in the West Bank, examines for the first time what happens to the cases the organization follows once they leave the limbo of the prosecution and make it to court. The situation, to put it mildly, is not “okay.”
To begin with, the chances that a complaint by a Palestinian victim will develop into an indictment against an Israeli felony suspect stands at a mere 7.4 percent. This means that the chances that an Israeli will appear in court for a crime he is suspected of committing is around 1 in 14. Most often, cases are closed due to police investigative failures; in a majority of the cases, the reason cited is the inability of the police to find a suspect – what is known as the the “unknown perpetrator clause.”
The fact that a case makes it to court does not, of course, mean it will end in a conviction. The defendants have the right to representation and have access to attorneys — as a human rights organization we entirely support this. The problem lies elsewhere.
In 10.5 percent of the cases, the defendants are convicted of all charges; in 22.8 percent of the cases, only some of the defendants are convicted, or they are convicted of some of the charges – often times reduced as part of a plea bargain. The rate of acquittal is high relative to other cases in Israeli courts (8.8 percent). But what is truly high is the rate of “non-conviction” (24.6 percent) and the rate of withdrawn indictment (22.8 percent).
What is a non-conviction? It is a relatively rare practice in which the court believes there is reason to avoid tarring the suspect with a criminal conviction for one reason or another — despite the fact that the felon has been found guilt of the charges. This almost never happens in the Israeli courts: the percentage of defendants in the magistrate’s courts found guilty without conviction is 5.3 percent; in district courts the number stands at only 1.2 percent. This is true unless the victim is a Palestinian; then the rare non-conviction jumps to 24.6 percent. That’s four times that of magistrate’ courts, and almost 20 times that of the district courts. What a coincidence.
In many of the cases in which indictments against Israelis charged with harming Palestinians were withdrawn, the reason given was, once again, investigative failure. The prosecution re-examined the evidence, apparently due to a response by the defendants’ attorneys, and reached the conclusion that it did not have enough evidence for a conviction. And that, we note, is a perfectly legitimate decision.
But in many of the cases of withdrawn indictments, one of the reasons cited was that the defendants did not even bother to show up for the hearings. In most of the cases the government took the required steps – a fine, issuing warrants for arrest and subpoenas – but the indictments were frozen until the defendant was found. In one of the cases, the prolonged freezing caused the police prosecution to claim that the evidence has been degraded, leading the court to revoke the indictment.
At the end of the day, the chance that a Palestinian who lodges a complaint about being harmed by an Israeli civilian will see a conviction is only 1.9 percent. Again, most of the blame for this lies with the police – but the courts are also responsible, as seen by the unusual rate of non-conviction.
Rule of law? Rule of the violent.