Claims of foul play in Corrie case

JERUSALEM — Evidence has emerged that an Israeli commander in Gaza obstructed a military police investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death seven years ago of American non-violent activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer while trying to block a home demolition in Rafah, Gaza Strip.

The apparent intervention of Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, then head of Israel's southern command, is documented in testimony taken by Israeli military police from the commander of the bulldozer a day after Corrie was killed on March 16, 2003. The hand-written affidavit has emerged during a civil suit currently being pursued by the Corrie family against the state of Israel in the Haifa District Court with the aim of proving the latter bears responsibility for her death.

Corrie, 23, was critically wounded when a D-9 bulldozer buried her with sandy soil near the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt, according to fellow volunteers with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, who were with her. Corrie died of her wounds after being evacuated by ambulance. Corrie, wearing a fluorescent orange jacket and carrying a megaphone, was among a group of ISM volunteers that over a period of three hours sought to block two army bulldozers from demolishing Palestinian homes.

In death, Corrie, from Olympia, Washington, became a symbol of idealism and self-sacrifice to many and an embarassment to Israel. Her correspondence from Gaza inspired the play "My Name is Rachel Corrie," which debuted at the Royal Court theater in 2005 but was cancelled at theaters in New York City and Toronto.

The Israeli military has maintained that its troops were not to blame for the killing of Corrie and that the driver had not seen her. It accused Corrie and the ISM of behavior that was ''illegal, irresponsible and dangerous.''

In remarks to GlobalPost this week, Almog denied ordering the bulldozer commander to desist from testifying.

In the affidavit, dated March 17, 2003, the commander of the D-9 tells military police investigators that he did not see Corrie before she was wounded. However, Alice Coy, now a nurse in Glasgow, then an ISM volunteer activist who was near Corrie during the incident, said in an affidavit to the court that ''to the best of my knowledge the bulldozer driver could see Rachel while pushing earth over her body.''

The D-9 commander, a reservist named Edward Valermov, was in the middle of his testimony when a colonel dispatched by Almog entered the room and ordered him to desist from speaking, according to the document. The military police investigator wrote: ''At 18:12, reserve Colonel Baruch Kirhatu entered the room and informed the witness that he should not convey anything and should not write anything and this at the order of the general of southern command.''

On March 19, 2003, the U.S. state department announced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had promised U.S. President George Bush that the Israeli government would undertake a ''thorough, credible and transparent investigation'' of Corrie's death.

Hussein Abu Hussein, lawyer for the Corrie family, says Almog's intervention blocked the possible emergence of evidence that could have determined whether Valermov's assertion that he did not see Corrie was reasonable.

''Do I believe him? Of course not. There is no doubt this was manslaughter,'' Abu Hussein said. ''First of all we claim the state is responsible for the death of Rachel. And secondly we claim that the investigation was not professional.''

''When you, the state of Israel, fail as an authority to perform your function of having a credible investigation, when your standard falls from reasonable, objective standards than you have caused evidentiary damage,'' Abu Hussein said.

In his testimony before he was stopped, Valermov said that the bulldozers, manned by two people, were ordered by their company commander to continue their work despite the presence of the ISM protesters. He said that troops in an armored personnel carrier threw stun grenades, used tear gas and fired shots toward the ground in order to scare the protesters away.

''It didn't help and therefore we decided to continue the work with all possible delicateness on the orders of the company commander,'' said Valermov.

Valermov testified that the protesters nearly touched the bulldozers, making it impossible to advance, but that after the company commander's order ''we started moving with the D-9, we continued laying bare the area from all of the things that were'' there.

The testimony was interrupted after Valermov, who was in the D-9 with its driver, named only as Yevgeny, said he did not know if Corrie had been harmed by the shovel of the D-9.

''It was only when we moved the D-9 backwards that I saw her. The woman was lying in a place where the instrument had not reached. As soon as we saw the harmed woman we returned to the central corridor, stood and waited for orders,'' said Valermov.

Valermov's last statement before Almog's interdiction was ''my job was to guide. The driver cannot guide himself because his field of vision is not large.''

Another army document makes clear that Almog opposed the military police investigation.

Dated March 18, 2003, a military police investigator petitioning a judge for permission to conduct an autopsy on Corrie's body explains that ''we arrived only today because there was an argument between the general of southern command and the military advocate general about whether to open an investigation and under what circumstances.'' The judge granted the request provided the autopsy would be done in the presence of a U.S. diplomat as the Corrie family requested. But in the end, the inquest was carried out by Israel's chief pathologist without any U.S. official being there, in apparent violation of the judge's ruling.

In a phone interview from Olympia, Washington, Craig Corrie, Rachel's father, termed Almog's intervention in Valermov's testimony ''outrageous.''

''When you see someone in that position taking those steps you not only have to be outraged, you have to ask why is he covering up, what has he done that he needs to take these steps to cover it up?" he said.

Queried for this article on Wednesday, Almog denied halting Valermov's testimony.

''I never gave such an order, I don't know such a document. I conducted my own investigation, I don't remember what I found," he said. "There were 12,000 terrorist incidents when I was general in charge of southern command. I finished seven years ago, if they want to invite me [to testify] they know the address. I certainly didn't disrupt an investigation, this is nonsense. In all of my service I never told anyone not to testify.''

Asked if he gave an order to harm foreign activists interfering with the army's work, Major-General Almog responded: ''What are you talking about? You don't know what a general in charge of command is. The general in charge of command has 100,000 soldiers. What are you talking about?''

Moshe Negbi, legal commentator for the state-run Voice of Israel radio, said of Almog's interdiction: ''If a commander prevents a witness from testifying then it is disruption of an investigation, a criminal offense whose penalty is three years imprisonment.''

Almog narrowly escaped arrest in Britain in 2005 on a war crimes charge for allegedly ordering the destruction in 2002 of 50 civilian homes in Rafah, where Corrie was later killed. Israel said the homes were being used to stage attacks. Almog was tipped off to the arrest attempt and did not disembark at Heathrow, returning instead to Israel on the El Al flight

Asked about Almog's interdiction, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman said: ''Any military police investigations are completely independent and cannot be influenced by outside sources.''

The Israeli state attorneys handling the case, Irit Koren and Nir Gincharsky declined to be interviewed for this article. The trial is due to resume in September.