Sgt. Elor Azaria was convicted in a unanimous decision of manslaughter on Wednesday morning after shooting dead a seriously wounded terrorist who carried out a stabbing attack just moments earlier in Hebron last year. Azaria will be sentenced in about a month and could face several years in prison.
“He opened fired in violation of orders, the terrorist did not pose any threat, ” the three judges wrote.
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The shooting was captured on camera by a resident of the city, causing a stir and major debate within the country, reaching the highest political and military echelons, about the conduct of the IDF and its commanders in the field.
Speaking outside the courtroom after the verdict had been announced, Defense Attorney Ilan Katz told reporters: “We respect the court and will learn from the decision. We will obviously appeal.”
Before announcing the final verdict, Central Command Chief Justice Col. Maya Heller systematically rejected all of Azaria’s defense arguments for over two-and-a-half-hours.
Judge Heller emphasized that “the verdict is based solely on the evidence brought forth (in the trial)” amid repeated claims from Azaria’s supporters that senior IDF leadership, politicians, the media and even public opinion could influence the ruling.
“There is no question that the defendant shot from close range after aiming his gun at the terrorist’s head and there is no dispute that by doing so he endangered the lives of those around him, ” she stated.
She also sought to debunk what she described as conflicting claims made by the defense teams. “The defendant tried to hold the rope at both ends—on the one hand he claimed the terrorist moved and on the other that he was already dead before he (Azaria) shot him, ” she noted.
“There was no justification for the shooting. The fact that there was a terrorist on the ground who sought to take the lives of soldiers did not justify disproportionate action, ” she insisted. “Azaria’s shooting was inconsistent with the rules of opening fire.”
Addressing Azaria’s state of mind before and after the shooting, Judge Heller said that “there is no dispute regarding the veracity of the statements made by the soldier T.M. who testified to the IDF Criminal Investigation Division (CID) that Elor told him during the incident ‘How is it that my friend was stabbed and the terrorist is alive.’
“There is no cause to suspect Cpl. T.M. tried to falsely accuse the defendant, they are friends. The defendant did not bring up with T.M. the explosive (he thought the terrorist had) and the knife (that was on the ground by the terrorist’s body) as a reason for the shooting. His words to T.M. show there was another reason for shooting the terrorist.”
Judge Heller pointed out that “it appears that during his CID interrogation, the defendant was aware of the things Cpl. T.M. presented. It is not for no reason that he denied having that conversation with T.M. at the beginning of his interrogation. When he was offered to confront T.M., the defendant set conditions for the confrontation. Despite what he said during his testimony, he repeated the claim that he didn’t recall any conversation with T.M. before and after the shooting except for asking him to look after his helmet.”
“When he was asked to address the claim that the motive for the shooting was revenge he instantly chose not to respond. We saw fit to dismiss his explanation and we have decided that after the shooting, he said in Cpl. T.M’s ear, ‘they stabbed my friend and tried to kill him—he deserves to die.’”
In her analysis, Judge Heller determined that “this statement has significant weight in the decision.”
Turning to what she deemed conspicuous discrepancies in the version of events presented by the defendant and the testimony provided by Company Commander Maj. Tom Na’aman, Heller said: “We gave full weight to the version of the Company Commander against the problematic version by Azaria. The defendant changed his version and testimony, including about the conversation he had with the Battalion Commander Lt. Col. David Shapira, whose testimony is credible in our opinion.”
Azaria’s parents, Charlie and Oshra, left their home in Ramla in the early morning and arrived at the court in the Kiryah (IDF headquarters) in Tel Aviv for the verdict, greeted by dozens of people who had turned up to stand in solidarity with the IDF sergeant.
Among those in the crowds of around 150 people—which had grown to 400 by 11am—were activists from the far right-wing Lahava group, Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans and members of the criminal, soccer fan group La Familia, some of whom began rioting and engaging in violent activites as the tension mounted.
As Azaria entered the courtroom, those nearby clapped their hands, while calling out expressions of support: “We love you and God loves you, ” they shouted.
Speaking after the verdict had been reached, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed regret at the outcome, saying “I don’t like the verdict”, but urged everyone to respect the legal judgement.
“We are all obligated to show restraint. What is important is that despite the verdict, the security apparatus will assist the soldier and his family in any way possible.”
Lieberman also called upon the public to refrain from attacking the security system, the IDF and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot
“The calls that I have heard in the last half hour is fundamentally wrong. The chief of staff is the commander of the army. He really works day and night, 24 hours, 7 days a week for the security of Israel…Any attacks on the IDF or on the chief of staff have no place.”
“We can’t take a soldier and make him a human shield. He did his work to defend the country, ” exclaimed MK Oren Haaza (Likud) before the verdict who, not for the first time, turned up in support of Azaria and his family.
Azaria has spent the nine months of the trial under open detention at his brigade’s base near Rosh HaAyin, where he has been doing maintenance work.
If convicted, the Military Advocate General’s Office has been considering asking the court to send Azaria to prison immediately without waiting for the sentencing.
Azaria’s defense team said they intend to appeal a conviction at the military court of appeals. This could drag the trial out for at least four more months and even longer if another appeal is filed to the Supreme Court.
By Yoav Zitun and Yonatan Baniyeh, Ynet News
Itay Blumenthal, Gilad Morag, Asaf Zagrizak, Attila Somfalvi and Amit Cotler contributed to this report.