U.S. shrugs off Israel ruling on Sheinbein extradition

WASHINGTON — Official Washington reacted with relative calm to an Israeli Supreme Court decision not to extradite a Maryland teenager to stand trial for a 1997 murder.

Although officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, expressed disappointment with the ruling, the reaction contrasted sharply with Israel's initial announcement that it would not extradite Samuel Sheinbein.

At that time, some politicians had threatened to hold up aid to Israel.

The case then went to the Israeli courts.

Israel's Supreme Court ruling Thursday that the 18-year-old Sheinbein could not be extradited to the United States overturned a lower court decision.

The Israeli justices ruled 3-2 that a law protecting Israeli citizens from being extradited for crimes committed abroad applies to Sheinbein. The teen had claimed citizenship through his father, who was born in pre-state Israel and left the country as a child.

On Monday, Israel's attorney general asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.

In his three-page request, Elyakim Rubinstein wrote that the case deserves to be heard again because of its importance for Israel's relations with other countries and because the Extradition Law, as currently interpreted, could turn Israel into a haven for criminals.

Rubinstein argued that the ruling went against the spirit of Israel's citizenship law, which he said was intended to avoid prosecutions motivated by anti-Semitism or politics.

He added that the narrow definition of the term "citizen," as adopted by the Supreme Court majority, undermines the goal of the extradition laws, which is to create a mechanism for international cooperation in law enforcement

He also said that the rationale for not extraditing a citizen is that he would not be familiar with the law, language or customs of the foreign country and because it is inappropriate to try a person when he is cut off from his own environment. Neither of these criteria apply to the American-born Sheinbein, Rubinstein wrote.

In rare circumstances, the Supreme Court has reopened deliberations on cases heard by five judges to rehear a case with up to 11 justices on the bench.

Israeli prosecutors said last week that Sheinbein would be indicted for murder. American prosecutors will try the case in an Israeli court, and if convicted, Sheinbein would serve his sentence in an Israeli jail.

Sheinbein fled to Israel in September 1997 to avoid standing trial for the murder of his former friend, 19-year-old Alfred Tello. Tello's dismembered body had been found in a house in a Maryland suburb earlier that month.

Another suspect in the murder, Aaron Needle, 18, hanged himself in his jail cell following his arrest.

Needle and Sheinbein were classmates at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in suburban Washington, D.C.

The justices in the majority said that the law preventing extradition should be amended by the legislature, in order to allow for exceptional cases like this one.

Indeed, some legislators said they would introduce legislation to amend the law.

American calls for extradition had come from the highest levels. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had been personally involved in urging Israel to hand over Sheinbein, who remains in an Israeli jail awaiting trial.

Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House committee responsible for foreign aid, did not reiterate a previous threat to seek a cut in aid to Israel if Sheinbein was not extradited.

Callahan said through a spokesman that he is "naturally disappointed" in the decision, but "we have to respect that." He also said that he "trusts that the decision will not prevent due process from taking its course.

"We can be disappointed, but we can't really influence the judicial process in Israel, the United States or any other country," he said.

Reno told reporters, "Of course we're disappointed with the response, but at the same time we're going to be dedicated to doing everything we can to work with the local prosecutor and with Israeli authorities, if the case is tried there, to see that justice is done."

At the same time, the United States is "looking at whatever we can do in terms of further steps to be taken in the review process," she said without elaborating.

In Jerusalem, Sheinbein's lawyer David Libai, a former justice minister, said after the court ruling: "Our Supreme Court again proved to be independent and did not yield to political pressures from the United States."

Israeli justice and political officials emphasized that Sheinbein would not get off easily.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office issued a statement stressing that "we hope and are sure that the U.S., as an enlightened state of law, will accept the ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court which is known as independent and apolitical."

If convicted, Sheinbein faces a life sentence, which typically translates to 25 years in Israel.