The Jaffa Military Court on Tuesday sentenced IDF soldier Elor Azaria to 18 months in jail for his manslaughter conviction for killing Palestinian attacker Abdel Fatah al-Sharif on March 24, 2015, as he lay wounded in a Hebron street.
As part of the sentencing, Azaria was also demoted from the military rank of sergeant to private.
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The defense has vowed to appeal the ruling, and asked the court to delay the beginning of the sentence until an appeal is submitted. Azaria’s representation requested 15 days to submit the main claims of an appeal.
Meanwhile, the IDF prosecution said it wanted Azaria’s prison term to start by this coming Sunday.
Azaria’s shooting of Sharif, around 10 minutes after the Palestinian was wounded while attacking an IDF checkpoint, was filmed. The video went viral and led countries around the world and the International Criminal Court to follow the criminal proceedings.
Advocacy NGO Human Rights Watch issued a reserved applause of Azaria’s sentence on Tuesday.
IDF soldier shoots dead subdued Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, part of Elor Azaria case
The group’s Israel and Palestinian Advocacy Director Sari Bashi said the sentence served as an “important message bout reigning in excessive use of force. But senior Israeli officials should also repudiate the shoot-to-kill rhetoric that too many of them have promoted, even when there is no imminent threat of death.”
“Pardoning Azaria or reducing his punishment would only encourage impunity for unlawfully taking the life of another person,” she added.
Ahead of Tuesday’s decision, the IDF prosecution had requested a three to five year sentence based on past cases of manslaughter.
Azaria’s defense lawyers, Ilan Katz and Eyal Besserglick had requested no jail time and even asked the court to toss the conviction because of alleged problematic pressure by the IDF on Azaria’s family to get him to drop his expected appeal.
Reports broke on January 11 about a meeting between Azaria’s Kfir Brigade battalion commander Col. Guy Hazot and his father, Charlie Azaria, in which the IDF allegedly offered lenient treatment to end the public relations headaches and social divisions the case has created in the army and throughout the country.
The defense team then brought Hazot to court as a witness on January 31 in a special hearing about the impact of his meeting on the proceedings. The defense hoped to use Hazot’s testimony to get the Jaffa Military Court to toss the conviction, or to give a lenient sentence in light of allegations that the IDF, through Hazot, tried to pressure Azaria into expressing regret in exchange for more lenient treatment.
But despite Katz and Besserglick’s efforts to tear down Hazot or to get him to implicate members of the IDF high command in a conspiracy against Azaria, he said he took sole responsibility for the dialogue.
He added that he merely thought that after reading how damning the court’s conviction of Azaria was, that right after the conviction was a last window of an opportunity to save Azaria from a longer jail sentence if he cooperated.
Regarding sentencing, IDF Prosecutor Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman had argued that any time spent in open detention on an army base should not count toward jail time.
On one hand, Weissman said that Azaria could be treated severely, as he had expressed no regret and killed intentionally, not by mistake.
On the other hand, he said Azaria deserved some leniency from the maximum 20-year sentence, since he shot a terrorist in a moment of high stress and had been regarded as a distinguished soldier up until the incident.
Azaria would face an uphill battle on appeal with the IDF courts recently promoting the head of the Jaffa Military Court panel, IDF Judge Col. Maya Heller, and the court’s verdict carefully addressing each of the defense’s arguments. Another appeal could potentially also be made to the High Court of Justice.
If an appeal does not succeed, Azaria could ask IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot for a pardon. If Eisenkot refused to a pardon, Azaria’s last shot at escaping jail would be to ask Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to recommend to President Reuben Rivlin that he pardon him.
Domestically, a pardon would be popular. Internationally, it could create a new scandal.
In the March 24 incident, Sharif stabbed another soldier and friend of Azaria’s, but was then shot several times and fell to the ground, nearly motionless.
By the time Azaria arrived on the scene around 10 minutes later, other IDF personnel in the area did not view Sharif as a concrete threat, even though some soldiers and many civilians saw him as a potential threat.
If he was not a threat, Azaria’s job as a medic would have been to merely attend to the wounded. Instead, he was seen across the globe on a video shooting Sharif in the head, killing him in a seemingly execution-style manner.
Azaria claimed self-defense, saying he was concerned Sharif would attack again with a knife or that he was wearing a concealed explosive vest. However, the Jaffa Military Court rejected all his defenses as being invented after the fact and convicted based on his original explanations that he shot Sharif out of revenge.
They pointed to testimony of his officers and, critically, of his soldier friend T.M., who was on the scene and testified that Azaria originally said Sharif needed to be killed out of revenge for stabbing a fellow soldier.
The defense’s cross-examination of T.M. had failed to knock down his testimony, the judges contended.
Azaria’s admission, spontaneously, that he killed out of revenge, is uniquely, objectively credible, the court said, adding that he did not mention fear of an explosive device on the spot, but only after the fact.
Heller took the prosecution’s side that Azaria changed his story five times, and found that the final story lacked credibility.
The court also accepted rank-and-file paramedic D.S.’s testimony that Azaria never mentioned a bomb, saying that witness had no incentive to lie. In addition, the judges added that Azaria had been evasive of many questions during cross-examination.
They did not mention three former IDF generals who testified in Azaria’s behalf until close to the end of the trial, and disregarded their testimony as being overly generic, not related to the specifics of the case and therefore irrelevant.
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