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Autopsy finds Palestinian American man died of heart attack after being bound and gagged by Israeli soldiers

Omar Assad, 78, was seen being pulled from his car and marched to the construction site where he was held for more than an hour

Men on Jan. 12 stand next to a poster of Omar Assad in the West Bank’s Jiljilya village. Assad was found dead in the early hours of that day after being detained by Israeli soldiers. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — An elderly Palestinian American man who was found dead after being detained by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank earlier this month suffered a stress-induced heart attack probably brought on by being bound and gagged and held in a cold construction site, according to the results of an autopsy released Wednesday.

Omar Assad, 78, was found unresponsive in the early hours of Jan. 12, minutes after Israeli soldiers left him in the courtyard of a house that was under construction. He and several other Palestinians had been stopped and detained at a late-night roadblock in Assad’s home village.

Three witnesses at the scene, as well as leaked testimony by the soldiers involved, described how Assad was pulled from his car and marched to the construction site, where he was held for more than an hour with a cloth tied around his eyes and gag over his mouth.

Assad suffered from cardiac and lung disease, according to his family, and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2014. A local physician, Islam Abu Zaher, who tried to resuscitate him said he had apparently died of cardiac arrest while being held. The findings of the medical exam released by the Palestinian Ministry of Justice described the cause of death as “stress-induced sudden cardiac arrest due to external violence.”

The examination found evidence that Assad had been tightly bound and blindfolded, with abrasions on his wrists and bleeding on the insides of his eyelids. The report does not describe other evidence of beatings or physical trauma. His history of cardiac and lung disease were evident, including markers of chronic emphysema, according to the report.

The Israel Defense Forces, which is conducting an internal investigation of the incident, declined to comment on the autopsy findings. The army has said it would be a breach of regulations for soldiers not to provide aid to a detainee in need of medical care.

“We are continuing with the investigation,” Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, a spokesperson, said in an interview. “If we find any wrongdoing, we will act according to the findings, our protocols and our values.”

An army official previously said Palestinian authorities denied Israel’s request to make the body available for its own post-mortem examination.

According to details of the probe leaked to Israeli media, three soldiers and two officers at the scene told investigators they had gagged Assad and forcibly marched him to the construction site because they didn’t want his shouting to alert others to the presence of the checkpoint.

But they denied that Assad showed any signs of distress and said he was alive when they left him. They testified that he seemed to doze while bound and assumed he was asleep when they cut his wrists free and departed.

That contradicts accounts given to The Washington Post from two Palestinians who were being held at the same time. They said Assad was already lying on the ground and clearly unresponsive when the soldiers left abruptly.

One of the men, Mraweh Abdulrahman, said he saw one of the soldiers kneel and seem to check on Assad before consulting with the others. All the soldiers departed almost immediately, Abdulrahman said.

Zaher, the physician who was on duty at a clinic two blocks from the construction site, said Assad’s face was already blue when he reached him within minutes of the soldiers’ departure and he appeared to have been without oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes.

According to the leaked testimony, soldiers never contacted a military medic who was on standby in the same village.

Assad died in his childhood village just north of Ramallah, where he and his wife returned in 2010 after spending most of their lives in the American Midwest.

The U.S. State Department has asked Israel for “clarification” of the circumstances of Assad’s death. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said last week it was “deeply concerned” by media accounts of the events.

The IDF said soldiers were in the village conducting anti-terrorism operations. According to witnesses, they set up the roadblock at an intersection not far from the center of town and were stopping all passing vehicles.

The soldiers told investigators they were checking for hidden weapons and anyone who might be wanted for questioning, according to the leaked testimony.

Assad was stopped about 3 a.m. as he drove home from a night of card playing at his cousin’s house less than a mile from his home. He had no ID with him, his family said.

Hazem Balousha in Gaza and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.