Rohan Pleads Innocent to El Aksa Mosque Arson Charges Before Packed Courtroom

Michael Denis William Rohan, the 28-year-old Australian sheep-shearer accused of setting fire to the EI Aksa mosque Aug. 21, pleaded innocent today to each of two charges of arson and two charges of violation of a Holy Place. The charges were read by Judge Henry E. Baker, a Scottish-born Israeli jurist who heads the three-member district court trying Rohan. The defendant pleaded innocent through his court-appointed lawyer, Yitzhak Tunik, a prominent criminal lawyer from Tel Aviv.

The Rohan trial opened in a 400 seat hall of Binyanei Haoma, the city’s convention center. It was packed to capacity with police security guards, newsmen, TV camera crews and spectators including members of the foreign diplomatic corps Moslem dignitaries from East Jerusalem and Israeli officials.

The sight of Rohan flanked by two policemen in a bulletproof glass booth wearing earphones to hear the simultaneous English translation of the Hebrew proceedings made comparisons with the trial of the notorious Gestapo deportation chief Adolf Eichmann inevitable. Israeli authorities have been anxious to play down the resemblance.

But the Rohan trial is doubtlessly the most important from an international point of view to be held in Israel since Eichmann was tried, convicted and executed. The mosque fire set off violent repercussions throughout the Moslem world and Israelis are admittedly anxious to give the trial of the suspect maximum publicity in order to refute Arab charges of Israeli responsibility for the blaze.

Rohan was seen to swallow hard when Judge Baker stated that each of the two counts of arson against him carry a penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment and the two counts of violating a Holy Place, seven years each — a total of 44 years. The court admitted as evidence the confession he allegedly made to Jerusalem police who arrested him within 24 hours of the fire. Also admitted as evidence were color slides allegedly taken by Rohan of the exterior and interior of the mosque before he set it afire. The latter, according to police, showed incendiary material inside the shrine before it was ignited.

POLICE OFFICER SAYS DEFENDANT ADMITTED SETTING FIRE FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS

Rohan’s alleged confession was read to the court by David Offer, a deputy police officer, at the request of prosecuting attorney Meir Shamgar, one of the lawyers who helped prosecute Eichmann. Deputy Offer testified that when he questioned Rohan following his arrest, the prisoner said, “I got up in the morning, went out and burned the El Aksa mosque.” The alleged confession read by Offer stated: “I read in the Prophet Zachariah that one person would be called by God to build the Temple. I deeply felt that God wanted me to build the Temple and that I would have to prove whether this call was true or not by destroying the mosque.”

It went on to say that Rohan paid Arab guides to take him on tours of the mosque dozens of times and tell how he made plans for setting it afire. Rohan has claimed that he is a member of the Church of God, a fundamentalist Protestant sect with headquarters in Cyprus. It is the alleged belief of the sect that the resurrection of Jesus must follow the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. The mosque, the third holiest shrine of Islam, occupies the site on which the Temple is believed to Have stood.

The charges against Rohan stated that the accused made an abortive attempt to set fire to the mosque several weeks before the Aug. 21 blaze. At the time only a door was scorched. The earlier fire went unnoticed and was unreported by the Moslem guards employed by the Waqf, the Moslem religious council in Jerusalem responsible for the security and maintenance of Moslem shrines. A joint Israeli-Arab committee inquiring into the circumstances of the Aug. 21 fire charged the Waqf with gross negligence in a report to Premier Golda Meir. Moslems on the other hand, have charged Israeli police with negligence in protecting the mosque.

The fire led to calls for a holy war against Israel by several Arab leaders, among them President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan. Arab wrath culminated in the convening of an all-Moslem summit conference at Rabat, Morocco last month. The conference ended inconclusively but the Arab states managed to pressure the more moderate non-Arab Moslem delegates to go along with a demand that Israel rescind its annexation of East Jerusalem.

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