Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Kerala: Jewish woman booked for vandalising Pro-Palestine mural gets bail, stopped at airport while traveling; SIO reinstalls mural

“I love my country”, said an Australian Jewish woman in a local court in Kerala after vandalising a pro-Palestine mural that read, “Silence is Violence, Stand up for Humanity”.

The Australian national, who was booked by Kerala police on Tuesday for vandalising pro-Palestine solidarity artworks in Ernakulam district, was prevented from boarding a flight from Cochin International Airport.

Citing a travel ban, immigration officials at the airport stopped the 38-year-old Australian Jewish woman, Zara Shilensky Michele, as she attempted to go to Bali, Indonesia on Thursday evening.

Zara, who claimed to be a writer, was booked by Fort Kochi police on Tuesday, April 18, for vandalizing pro-Palestine solidarity artworks put up by the Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), the students’ wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, on Monday, April 17 evening.

The mural destroyed by Zara, which was put up near the Fort Kochi Ro-Ro ferry service, was protesting the ongoing genocide of Palestinians by Israel. The destroyed mural, which was installed by the Kochi city unit in December 2023, was reinstalled on Friday evening at the same location.

Speaking on the travel ban, Zara’s lawyer, Roshitha AU, told Maktoob, “I wasn’t aware that she planned to leave Kerala. It was only after she was denied an immigration pass by the officials that she informed me. That’s when we learned about the look-out circular (LOC) issued against her by the state police. The Intelligence Bureau has been involved in this case. Although it wasn’t a conditional bail granted to her, I learned that she cannot leave without the permission of the magistrate or until the case is closed.”

“We don’t know whether she will come back when the trial commences and if she leaves the country, it will affect the course of the investigation”, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mattancherry Subdivision, Manoj K R told Maktoob about the ban.

Maktoob had published CCTV footage obtained from a nearby restaurant showing Zara accompanied by another foreign woman doing the act. They were seen taking a photo of the mural and then returning to tear it down, while her friend recorded the video. Additionally, Maktoob published a video recording of Zara arguing after being questioned by youngsters who witnessed the vandalism. Zara stated that she did it for the Jewish people.

Roshitha told the reporter that she didn’t know why Zara destroyed the mural. She said, “Initially, Zara was unaware of the seriousness of her actions. She never expected things would turn out like this. She was crying the whole time in front of me and became scared after the protests. She was not arrogant as shown in the video after that.”

SIO had also criticised Fort Kochi police for being soft on the vandal. SIO Kochi City president Fuad P S told Maktoob, “On Monday night, the tourists destroyed two art boards and a flex installed by us in solidarity with Palestine. The following day around 4 pm, we went to the police station with evidence of the vandalism. However, the police showed no interest in taking any action and surprisingly asked us to locate the vandals. We located them near their homestay and informed the police, who later summoned them to the station.”

Fuad alleges, “The police attempted to negotiate on behalf of the vandal. They claimed that a case couldn’t be filed without permission from the Director General of Police. The police seemed more interested in dissuading us from filing a case. Police didn’t want to register a First Information Report (FIR). Despite this, we insisted on registering a case against them. Their attitude towards us changed after we stood firm in our stance.”

Following outrage against the inaction by police, about 200 people including SIO cadres, and local residents, held hours-long protest raising slogans inside the police station premises. This prompted ACP Manoj to arrive, forcing the police to register a FIR at night based on a complaint filed by Kochi Area Secretary of SIO, Muhammed Azeem KS.

Zara was booked under the bailable section 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) of the Indian Penal Code. The FIR states that the accused destroyed the pro-Palestinian boards intending to cause a riot. On Wednesday, Zara was arrested and placed under police protection at the homestay. Zara was granted bail by the Mattancherry Judicial First Class Magistrate Court on Thursday.

The investigating officer of the case, Sub Inspector Abdul Hakeem, told Maktoob, “She might have been intoxicated while doing it, and only further investigation will answer her intentions”.

On Thursday, SIO again filed a complaint with the police to press stringent charges against her. SIO Kerala President Muhammad Saeed TK told Maktoob, “What the tourists displayed was a sheer act of Zionist hatred. The policy of the Kerala government on Palestine doesn’t align with the actions of the Kerala police. Their approach was lenient towards the Zionist and facilitated her bail. The fact that the Zionist woman obtained bail only because stringent sections were not applied reinforces the accusations against the Kerala police, even by allies of the Kerala government, of being pro-right-wing.”

The FIR was also criticized for not mentioning Zara’s name and for failing to charge her friend, who was complicit in the act. Responding to criticisms, ACP Manoj told Maktoob, “The ignorance of the complainants is not our fault”. He added, “How can the police write her name in the FIR when the complaint didn’t name her?”

Countering Manoj, Saeed said, “Initially, when we complained, we couldn’t name the vandal since we didn’t know their identity. However, even after the vandals were in custody, the police could have named her in the FIR. But they didn’t. This explains their hypocrisy.”

In response to claims made by right-wing handles that the court granted bail to Zara after finding her actions not wrong, Roshitha stated, “No, the court never supported her actions. The magistrate scolded her well and questioned why she committed such an act in Kerala. The court sternly warned her not to repeat such actions and told her, ‘If you have come as a tourist, visit and leave without engaging in such acts’.”

With a laugh, Roshitha added, “She said, ‘I love my country’”, this was the only statement she made in court when asked about the reason for the vandalism.

Pro-Palestinian South Australian author Karen Wyld tweeted, “Australian tourist Zara Shilensky Michele arrested for destroying a peace mural in Kerala, India. I’m not pro-cops, but she owes that community an apology for her racist outburst, and she should pay damages for the artwork she destroyed”.

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