Former minister and Knesset member Shlomo Benizri (Shas ) was released from prison on Thursday morning, along with 600 other prisoners whose sentences were commuted due to overcrowding in Israel's jails.
Upon his release, Benizri attacked the justice system, which he said had treated him unfairly, insensitively and vindictively. "I was framed," he claimed, calling his imprisonment "one of the worst injustices in the history of the state."
Benizri lashed out at former Justice Edmond Levy, who increased his prison sentence, State President Shimon Peres, whom he said ignored his pardon request and the media.
"No thanks to the justice system," Benizri said angrily. "They all treated me unjustly, insensitively and vindictively."
"Why didn't Peres pay attention to my pardon request? The state believed the lying state's witness," he said.
Benizri said he had no regrets for anything he had done, although in order to have his sentence reduced he expressed regret for what he did to the prison parole board.
The first thing Benizri did after leaving the prison was to visit Shas' spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at his Jerusalem home. Only after that did he go home on the other side of Jerusalem, where his wife, children, friends and students were waiting for him. They had decorated his apartment, adorned it with balloons and stocked it with food and drink.
The Shas party released a statement welcoming "the release of Rabbi Shlomo Benizri, who has dedicated and sacrificed all his life on behalf of the public, and contributed greatly to Israeli society. [Shas] prays he will continue his great deeds for the public."
The party's rabbis, ministers and Knesset members all came to greet Benizri. At least outwardly, nobody in Shas believes Benizri was guilty.
Shas' semi-official radio, Kol Barama, broadcast ongoing reports of the minister's release. Benizri gave the station a special interview, relating his prison experiences, the Torah lessons he gave, the wardens who used to kiss his hand and even of Arab prisoners who told him what an injustice had been done to him.
Benizri will not be able to serve in the Knesset for the next seven years, due to the moral turpitude his conviction carried. He said however that he intends to take part in Shas' leadership and return to political life.
Benizri was convicted in 2008 of accepting bribes, breach of trust and obstructing justice, and sentenced to 18 months in jail. His sentence was later extended to four years, following an appeal by the state.
In January, a parole board decided to reduce his sentence by 16 months for good behavior, setting his release date for the end of April.
Benizri's early release was made possible when Shas MKs in the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee decided on Wednesday to lower the maximum number of prisoners held in Israel's prisons from 17,700 to 16,873.
Members of the committee denied that the decision was made specifically with Benizri in mind.
Benizri told Haaretz on Thursday of the frustration he felt in prison when he couldn't grab a microphone and speak his mind, or speak out for Shas during the crisis the ultra-Orthodox public had undergone during his prison term.
He said he had followed the events in Immanuel, where Mizrahi school girls were discriminated against, Beit Shemesh, where ultra-Orthodox men attacked school girls, the segregated bus lines and the Supreme Court's revoking the Tal Law.
In the months leading up to his release Benizri shared his prison cell with former president Moshe Katsav. At his meeting with Rabbi Yosef, Benizri passed on Katsav's request for more of the rabbi's books.
"He reads loads of books. He's reading literature now - he's read political books and such like, but he's very very attached to [Yosef's] book. It's very important to him to receive it from the rabbi himself. And he asked for more books from the rabbi," Benizri said.
After visiting Yosef, Benizri went home, where his family was waiting with a welcome poster and decorations at the entrance of the building. Benizri sat at the head of the table, under a picture of Rabbi Yosef, with his infant grandson on his lap.
Some 600 prisoners went free together with Benizri on Thursday. One of them was former policeman Shahar Mizrahi, who was convicted in 2009 of shooting and killing Mahmoud Ghanaim during an alleged vehicle theft. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison but, following the state's appeal, the Supreme Court doubled his sentence.
Also freed was real estate developer Boaz Yona, former CEO and owner of the Heftziba construction company that went bankrupt following the embezzlement of more than NIS 100 million. Yona was arrested after he had fled to Italy with his clients' funds. He was due to be released only in 2015, but after his sentence was reduced by one third for good behavior, he qualified for the "administrative release."
Shalom Domrani, whom the police describe as an alleged crime kingpin, was also released on Thursday. Domrani was convicted on charges of blackmail and extortion after a long, complicated and expensive police investigation. He was sentenced to seven months in prison, as part of a plea bargain that deducted the five months he had already spent under arrest during the trial from the term.
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