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Israeli Court Acquits Prison Worker in Death of Eritrean Immigrant


FILE - Israeli policemen stand next to the body of a suspected Palestinian attacker, who opened fire on people at a bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, Oct. 19, 2015.

FILE - Israeli policemen stand next to the body of a suspected Palestinian attacker, who opened fire on people at a bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, Oct. 19, 2015.

An Israeli court has acquitted Hananiya Shabbat, an employee of the prison service, of charges that he was part of a mob that killed an Eritrean immigrant at a bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba last October.

Eritrean immigrant Habtom Zerhom was killed following a terror attack in which a gunman shot and killed 19-year-old Israeli Defense Forces soldier Omri Levi, and wounded several other people. In the ensuing chaos, Zerhom was wrongly identified as the attacker, then was beaten by onlookers and shot by Israeli police.

Shabbat had been accused of unnecessary violence and behaving in a manner not in keeping with his position as a prison worker. He was acquitted of all charges.

His attorney, Dan Groves, said his client and another prison employee were driving by the bus station and had tried to help in the aftermath of the attack.

"The court today gave a very clear verdict after very carefully examining the evidence," Groves told VOA. "When you look at the evidence, his actions are very, very reasonable. … He and his officer heard shooting. They stopped the car and jumped inside trying to help even though it was not their job, and they were not armed with anything."

Groves said his client was anxious to clear his name and had been on leave from his job since October. "Now he will get back to work and try to get his life back," Groves said.

Charges against police, security

Limor Lugasi, a lawyer representing Zerhom's family, filed a lawsuit against the police and the company in charge of security at the bus station for negligence and allowing a terrorist to enter the bus station.

The lawsuit also accuses the police of not being able to thwart the mob, which attacked Zerhom while he was on the ground after being shot.

Lugasi said that despite the acquittal, it was clear that others will face criminal charges for what they did to Zerhom.

"In the video footage, you can see it clearly that the policeman and all of the people that were there attacked Habtom [Zerhom] with everything they had to attack him. They attacked him with the table; they attacked him with clubs," said Ohad Priel, an attorney working with Lugasi.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month at the Beersheba District Court, requests that the National Insurance Agency recognize Zerhom as a victim of terror and asks for compensation of 3 million New Israel Shekel (NIS), or about $780,000, for his family.

Although Israel Radio has reported that the demand was rejected because Zerhom entered the country illegally, Lugasi said there are ongoing discussions with the government. Zerhom had received a license to remain in Israel temporarily.

"We are in discussion with the government to give them compensation for the family of Habtom Zerhom, but we didn't get the final answer of this," she said.

She expects an answer in about a month.

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    Salem Solomon

    Salem Solomon is a journalist and web producer at Voice of America’s Horn of Africa Service, where she reports in English, Amharic and Tigrigna. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Poynter.org, Reuters and The Tampa Bay Times. Salem researches trends in analytics and digital journalism, and her data-driven work has been featured in VOA’s special projects collection.

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