Israel Police withheld potentially-crucial evidence and changed their timescale of events in a case against a West Bank Palestinian who is accused of raping an Israeli child.
Earlier this year, a seven-year-old Israeli girl from an ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement was brutally raped. The girl's name and the exact location of the settlement are currently under an Israeli court gag order, but the attack is presumed to have taken place in Modi'in Ilit, a Haredi settlement near Israel's illegal Separation Wall.
On Monday, 46-year-old Palestinian Mahmoud Katusa – who hails from the village of Deir Qadis, next to Modi'in Ilit – was charged with her kidnap and rape. Katusa reportedly worked at the girl's school as a maintenance worker, with the indictment against him charging that he won the girl's trust by engaging her in conversation and giving her sweets over a prolonged period of time.
However, sources close to the police investigation yesterday told Israeli daily Haaretz that Israel Police failed to send potentially-crucial evidence to the forensics department for examination and changed their account of the attack after Katusa's alibi was confirmed, raising questions about the validity of the indictment.
These sources explained that the child's underwear was found close to the apartment where the attack allegedly took place. The girl subsequently verified that the clothes were her own. However, despite the fact that this could have provided crucial DNA evidence about the suspect, the police did not give the child's underwear to the forensics department.
According to Haaretz, "police explained that they decided not to send the underpants to a forensic examination because the complaint [of] the rape was filed 'more than a week after the incident took place'." The Israeli daily added: "Nonetheless, a senior police official told Haaretz that normally all items and evidence linked to sexual offenses are sent to an examination, even if the chances are low for any findings to be located."
Furthermore, "forensic investigators were unable to trace the child's DNA at the apartment where the indictment alleges that the rape took place."
"A former police official explained that it is possible that no findings could be traced at the crime scene," Haaretz added, but noted that the former official stressed this is not usually the case.
In addition to withholding this evidence, Israel Police also reportedly changed its timescale and location of the attack mid-way through the investigation and hearing.
Originally, the police claimed that Katusa took the girl to his home in Deir Qadis – where he allegedly raped her while two other Palestinians held her to the floor – on a specified date and time.
However, at the hearing Katusa claimed that, at that time, he was doing renovation work at a different location. He asked a witness known only as M. – who reportedly hired Katusa to work on an apartment he owned in the settlement – to verify his alibi. M. proceeded to do so during the hearing and informed Israel Police.
The police eventually verified the alibi but, as Haaretz reports, "after the alibi was confirmed, the police altered their claim about where the rape took place – from Katosa's home to an apartment a few hundred meters from the [girl's] school."
Police also changed the date of the alleged rape to a date for which Katusa did not have an alibi. The indictment that was eventually filed does not mention a precise date or hour when the rape took place, noting only that it was committed on "a Friday between February and April", after school hours.
These anomalies have raised doubts as to the veracity of the case against Katusa. His lawyer, Nashef Darwish, has argued "there is a total absence of logic" present in the case, asking: "How is it possible that an Arab guy in the heart of an ultra-Orthodox settlement could drag a seven-year-old girl from her school to another house that's a 20-minute walk away, and nobody would notice?"
Darwish also argued that the accusations against his client were being fuelled by anti-Palestinian sentiment. The case has caused a political storm in Israel, with right-wing politicians such as former Defence Minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman, hard-line Likud Knesset Member (MK) Gilad Erdan, and newly-appointed Minister of Transport, Bezalel Smotrich, calling for the attack to be treated as terrorism and for Katusa to be executed.
Darwish slammed the MKs for this rhetoric, saying "just because [Katusa] is Arab, he doesn't deserve the presumption of innocence?" Darwish added he "can say with complete certainty that people are going to be shocked with [court] decisions that will be made in the next few days," stressing that the real attacker "may not have even been Palestinian".
Israel Police has since re-opened the case after "new information" came to light "in order to look into suspicions of additional individuals involved in the crime". The probe has also been handed to the head of the Israel Police's national investigations unit, Gadi Siso – in cooperation with Israel's State Prosecutor, Shai Nitzan – due to the "sensitive nature" of the case.