An Israeli court on Thursday acquitted a man convicted of murdering a schoolgirl in 2006, with her mother vowing to find the real killer in the case that has gripped the country.
The verdict reignited the mystery around the case that inspired conspiracy theories, books and movies, including a documentary that aired on Netflix.
"The Nazareth district court today acquitted... defendant Roman Zdorov of the murder of Tair Rada," the court said in a statement.
Rada was found with a slit throat and in a pool of blood in a bathroom stall of her school in Katzrin, a town in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in December 2006. She was 13 years old.
Zdorov, a Ukrainian resident of Israel who had been working in construction at the school, was arrested days after, and charged at the same Nazareth court based on evidence and a confession he later retracted.
He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison.
Expert opinion on the knife used saw the supreme court order a retrial, and in 2014 the Nazareth district court once again found him guilty, a ruling the supreme court upheld the following year on appeal.
In 2021 a supreme court judge granted Zdorov the right to another retrial at the Nazareth district court, releasing him to house arrest for the duration of the process that ended Thursday with two of three judges ruling him innocent of Rada's murder.
The judges cited "firm and reasonable doubt" in Zdorov's guilt, and that "the prosecution failed to prove the defendant's guilt", according to the verdict.
Sitting with his wife and son in the courtroom, Zdorov burst into tears when the head of the panel acquitted and freed him more than 16 years after he was first imprisoned.
- No 'alternative scenario' -
In brief remarks to the media after the proceedings ended, Zdorov thanked his supporters.
"The truth has emerged victorious," said the man now in his mid-40s.
Rada's mother, Ilana, who for years had doubted Zdorov's guilt, pointed a finger at the state prosecution, who she claimed built a case around the wrong man.
"For the first time justice has been made," she said of Thursday's ruling.
"The next stage is to start looking for the murderers, and we know where to go," she added, without elaborating.
Zdorov's verdict generated huge interest in Israel, featuring on the front pages of all the major newspapers and in television broadcasts, with the court providing rare live footage of the session.
The justice ministry said its conduct was professional. It quoted the minority judge who rejected Zdorov's innocence as saying that the evidence justifying the retrial "did not present even a remote alternative scenario to the murder."
"We did everything in our power to conduct a professional, honest and fair trial," the ministry said in a statement, adding the state attorney's office may appeal the verdict.
- 'Loyalty to truth' -
The murder and its seemingly endless legal proceedings have gripped Israel for years, with books and films professing Zdorov's innocence or guilt, as many questions surrounding the case remain unresolved.
The case featured in a popular four-part Netflix docuseries called "Shadow of Truth", which won an Israeli award in 2017.
The latest ruling, days after Israel's coalition announced it was suspending work on a controversial judicial overhaul, has been cited as evidence by both supporters and opponents of the divisive proposals.
Simcha Rothman, head of the parliament's law committee and one of the main forces behind the reform package, retweeted a statement from a conservative think tank claiming the Zdorov acquittal was the result of "no independent review system" overseeing prosecutors' work.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- who is on trial for corruption charges he denies -- and his allies in government argue the legal system has become politicised and advocate diminishing some of its powers.
Opposition member Merav Michaeli hit back in a tweet saying the verdict was proof of "the system's loyalty to the truth".
"This is the great merit of an independent and apolitical court system," the centre-left Labor party leader said.