Israeli prosecutor appeals acquittal of staff who beat Eritrean to death in prison cell

Prosecutors appeal acquittal of men who lynched migrant mistaken for terrorist

Supreme Court to discuss case of IDF soldier and Prisons Service officer filmed beating Eritrean man Haftom Zarhum in aftermath of 2015 terror attack in Beersheba

Security camera footage showing an Eritrean man being shot in the Beersheba central bus station on October 18, 2015, after he was thought to be a terrorist. (screen capture: Channel 2)

Security camera footage showing an Eritrean man being shot in the Beersheba central bus station on October 18, 2015, after he was thought to be a terrorist. (screen capture: Channel 2)

State prosecutors on Sunday appealed a July court decision that acquitted two men, Israel Defense Forces soldier Yaakov Shimba and Israel Prisons Service officer Ronen Cohen, over their roles in the 2015 lynching of an Eritrean migrant who was mistaken for a Palestinian terrorist.

In the minutes after a terror attack at the Beersheba bus station on October 18, 2015, Haftom Zarhum, 29, an innocent bystander, was shot by two soldiers and a security guard who thought he was the perpetrator. As he lay bleeding on the ground, a crowd of angry passersby — believing him to be the terrorist — beat him, some of them delivering powerful blows to his head and pummeling him with a metal bench. He died hours later in a hospital, and an autopsy ruled that the primary cause of death was the gunshot wounds.

The attack was carried out by Muhanad Alukabi, 21, from an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev. He first opened fire with a pistol, killing IDF soldier Omri Levi, then took Levi’s service rifle and used it to wound 11 others. He was killed in a shootout with police after holing up in a bathroom.

Citing reasonable doubt, the Beersheba District Court in July accepted the argument presented by Shimba and Cohen that they had genuinely thought Zarhum was the terrorist.

On Sunday, the prosecution appealed the district court’s decision, taking the matter to the Supreme Court.

The reasoning for the appeal must be submitted to the country’s top court within 15 days.

Shimba, Cohen and two other men, who were caught on security cameras beating Zarhum, had been accused of “causing injury with grave intent,” an offense potentially carrying a punishment of up to 20 years in jail. Unlike the two other defendants, they did not agree to a plea deal that would downgrade the charge and offer a relatively lenient punishment.

The indictment said that in the aftermath of the attack, Shimba kicked Zarhum in the head and upper body with force. It said Cohen threw a bench onto him, and after another man removed the bench he took it and again dropped it on the prone man.

Cohen also shoved a civilian who asked him to stop his attack, according to the charges.

Haftom Zarhum, 29, died of his wounds on October 19, 2015, a few hours after he was shot and beaten by a mob that mistook him for an assailant in the terror attack in Beersheba on October 18, 2015. (Courtesy)

Despite the fact that Zarhum was already critically injured, Justice Aharon Mishnayot ruled that the pair’s argument — that they beat him because they genuinely thought he was the terrorist — was enough to merit an acquittal.

Cohen’s attorney, Zion Amir, called him a “hero.”

Commenting on the ruling, Amir said: “There is no doubt that this is a big day for an officer who acted heroically during the incident, and instead of an award got an indictment. I am glad that the court acquitted him after an almost five-year legal battle.”

The two other defendants in the lynching, Evyatar Dimri and David Muial, were convicted in 2018 in plea bargains that downgraded their charges to “abusing the helpless,” a lesser crime carrying a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

Dimri was sentenced to four months in prison and Muial got 100 days of community service and eight months of probation and was ordered to pay NIS 2,000 (approximately $550) compensation to Zarhum’s family.

Zarhum’s family has sued the state for damages, claiming negligence and failure to follow proper procedure caused his death.

The lawsuit, filed in 2017 at the Beersheba District Court, demanded NIS 3 million ($780,000) in compensation and that the National Insurance Agency recognize Zarhum as a victim of terror, entitling his family to additional state benefits.

The National Insurance Agency rejected recognizing Zarhum as a terror victim because the Eritrean had entered the country illegally.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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