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(Haaretz) Citing Racism, Israeli Court Acquits Eritrean Asylum Seeker of Assault

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Friday, 18 January 2019

  • Citing Racism, Israeli Court Acquits Eritrean Asylum Seeker of Assault

    After a witness testified that the defendant's Jewish colleagues had regularly humiliated her, it was decided that the asylum seeker acted out of self-defense

    Bar Peleg Jan 18, 2019 

  • The defendant, identified only by her first name Yurta, in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 17, 2019.
  •  The defendant, identified only by her first name Yurta, in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 17, 2019. Credit:\ Ilan Assayag

A court acquitted an Eritrean asylum seeker of assault this week while criticizing the racism she suffered at her job.

The defendant, a mother of four in her 30s, worked for two years in a day care center in central Israel. She was accused of hitting another employee, causing her to lose sight in one eye.

But after six years of legal proceedings, Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Shamai Becker concluded that the defendant — who was identified only by her first name, Yurta — did not initiate the violence and had only acted in self-defense. Moreover, he noted, a fellow employee whose testimony led to Yurta’s acquittal had described “a series of racist humiliations” against Yurta.

The incident that led to charges being filed occurred in March 2012, when a colleague who was not identified by name accused Yurta of stealing a piece of jewelry. Yurta denied this and even asked the director of the day care to search her purse to prove her innocence.

That evening, while the two were waiting for their rides home, according to the indictment Yurta punched her accuser in the eye without any warning or provocation. As a result of the injury, the woman eventually lost her sight in that eye.

Yurta claimed she hit the woman only after her alleged victim shoved her to the ground and choked her.

Despite the testimony of two witnesses, the director and an employee who was a friend of the alleged victim, the judge initially had trouble determining who really the violence. But in April, a former employee who had quit two months after the incident came forward to testify.

The former employee said all of the center’s Jewish employees, and Yurta’s alleged victim in particular, had regularly humiliated their Eritrean colleagues. She said the alleged victim, an Ethiopian-Israeli Jew, had hurled racist abuse at Yurta because of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“If she drank from the cooler, they wouldn’t drink after her before cleaning it with bleach,” the ex-employees said. “If she went to the bathroom, they wouldn’t go in after her. If she sat on a chair, they’d get rid of it or wipe it down. And if they walked beside her, they’d hold their noses.

Moreover, the witness said, Yurta never sat with the other workers during breaks, because she was afraid of the Ethiopian-Israeli woman. She added that the Jewish employees had even asked their Eritrean colleagues to get tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Asked why she never advised Yurta to complain, the witness said Yurta had told her she needed the job to support her family and was afraid of being fired.

The witness testified that Yurta had only struck the other woman in self-defense.

Judge Becker called the ex-employee an exceptional witness and decided to acquit Yurta immediately after hearing her testimony. He said the other two witnesses had offered conflicting testimony. He had trouble deciding who was telling the truth, but the ex-employee’s testimony tipped the balance.

This decision was aided by the alleged victim’s police statement, four days after the incident, in which she said she couldn’t stand Eritreans, Becker added.

“True, even people who speak in ways that could be construed as racist can suffer from violence,” Becker wrote. Nevertheless, he said, the story presented by the prosecution, as if the alleged victim had nothing against Yurta and the other Eritreans, was clearly undermined by her police statement.

Yurta’s public defender, Tirza Kish, said the police hadn’t made “even a minimal effort to verify her story,” and had they done so, she would have been spared an indictment. “The legal proceedings exposed the racist atmosphere from which Yurta and her friends suffered,” Kish added.

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