JERUSALEM (Oct. 7)
The El Aksa mosque fire trial took a predictable turn today when the accused arsonist, Michael Denis William Rohan, 28, reversed his plea of innocence and admitted to all of the charges against him except premeditation. Yitzhak Tunik, the Tel Aviv criminal lawyer defending the Australian sheep-shearer, entered a plea of temporary insanity on behalf of his client. Mr. Tunik asserted that Rohan could not be held punishable because at the time of the offense he was mentally ill.
The reversal was anti-climactic and interest in the trial has already noticeably diminished. The 400-seat ball in the convention center, packed to capacity when the trial opened yesterday, was only partly filled this morning. On Monday, Mr. Rohan pleaded innocent to two charges of arson and two charges of violation of a Holy Place, offenses which according to presiding Judge Henry E. Baker carry an aggregate penalty of 44 years in prison.
In switching to a guilty plea today, the accused took exception to only one fact on the charge sheet — that he had “made up his mind” to set fire to the mosque “in the context of extreme religious convictions.” Police who interrogated Rohan after his arrest Aug. 23 testified yesterday that he had claimed that God commanded him to burn the mosque so that the Temple could be rebuilt on its site. They said that Rohan claimed membership in the Church of God, a small Protestant fundamentalist sect.
According to reports widely published here, Rohan spent several months in an Australian mental institution in 1965 and was at one time declared a schizophrenic. These reports are expected to figure in Mr. Tunik’s defense. But there seemed little chance that the trial would be shortened although Judge Baker indicated that he hoped it would. Prosecuting attorney Meir Shamgar, one of the lawyers who helped prosecute Nazi deportation chief Adolf Eichmann, said the prosecution was not prepared to accept the defense plea. He asked the court for permission to “prove the facts fully.” Judge Baker then ruled that the court would hear all 43 witnesses. But he said he hoped Mr. Tunik’s cross-examination would be shortened considerably to cut down the length of the trial.
Arab radio and television broadcasts charged yesterday that the charges against Rohan were “trumped up” and that his trial was a “show” put on for the benefit of world opinion. A spokesman on Amman television quoted “informed sources” who alleged that certain wealthy Jews wanted the Temple restored on its ancient site and that their agents set fire to the mosque. According to Amman, Rohan is an “innocent scapegoat.”