Israel's AG announces major charge dropped against FM Lieberman
Foreign Minister indicted however with the more minor charge of breach of trust fraud involving Israel's former ambassador to Belarus.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday said he was closing the main case against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, concluding a 12-year investigation into allegations of money laundering and fraud. However, Weinstein said he would indict Lieberman on lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust, in the case concerning Israel's former ambassador to Belarus.
Lieberman implied he would not resign and said he would decide whether to do so after consulting his lawyers and considering "the effect it will have on my voters." He accused the State Prosecutor's Office of persecuting him for 16 years.
Weinstein said he had reached the conclusion that the evidence in the main case against Lieberman was not enough for a reasonable chance of conviction. "The case must be closed due to the absence of sufficient evidence," he said. The main case against Lieberman involved allegations of money-laundering, fraud and breach of trust. Lieberman was suspected of receiving millions of dollars from international tycoons such as Martin Schlaff and Mikhail Chernoy through foreign front companies while he was serving in public positions.
Weinstein passed on to Lieberman the charge sheet he intends to present against him. The charges say Lieberman promoted former ambassador to Belarus Ze'ev Ben Aryeh without reporting that Ben Aryeh had tipped him off about the investigation being conducted against him in Belarus.
Lieberman first appointed Ben Aryeh a consultant in the Foreign Ministry and later named him Israel's ambassador to Belarus, the charges say.
"The defendant was aware that Ben Aryeh [tipped him off] during his term as ambassador, in contravention of his duties and without authority ... gravely breaching the trust invested in him in dealing with Israel's request" for information about the Belarus probe, the indictment says.
Despite this, Lieberman allegedly refrained from telling the Foreign Ministry appointments committee about Ben Aryeh's alerting him to the secret information. Nor did Lieberman divulge this information when he presented the appointment to the cabinet.
In the indictment draft from 2011, the prosecution said that during 2001-2008, while Lieberman was serving as an MK and minister, millions of dollars were funneled to companies he owned in Israel, Cyprus and the Virgin Islands. The money was transferred by business people who had interests in Israel, such as Austrian entrepreneur Martin Schlaff, Uzbek-Israeli businessman Michael Chernoy and diamond magnates Dan Gertler and Daniel Gitenstein.
When he returned to politics, Lieberman stated he had sold his rights in those companies, but the prosecution claimed he continued to receive huge sums of money from them.
Weinstein listed the reasons for closing this file, beginning with the problematic evidence. While the investigators found circumstantial evidence of Lieberman's connections with the foreign companies, no clear evidence was found of his receiving the money and controling the companies during his term as a public official.
Weinstein said the investigators had found contradictory evidence regarding whether Lieberman had sold the companies or not.
The attorney general also said the main witness for the prosecution, Cypriot accountant Daniella Mourtzi, claimed "memory failure" and refused to testify against Lieberman in Israel. Mourtzi was originally counted on to provide the testimony linking Lieberman and the various companies. When it transpired on November 7 she would not testify, "it had a major effect on my final decision," Weinstein said.
As for the other foreign witnesses, the prosecution thought it would not be able to bring them to testify and feared that taking their testimony in video conference would reduce its value in the trial, he said.
After Lieberman's hearing with the attorney general, State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and a number of prosecuting attorneys thought Lieberman should be indicted, while the prosecutor's deputy Shuki Lemberger and several other attorneys thought there was no place to press charges, Weinstein added.
But even Lador, who believed the evidence was sufficient to prove the main charge against Lieberman, and that he had a reasonable chance of conviction, agreed that in view of the legal complexities and difficulties in bringing witnesses and evidence from overseas, closing the case was a reasonable move.
Weinstein said that "there's a plausible explanation for the long time it took the police and prosecution to deal with the case," but added he regretted it had taken so long.
He said quite a few questions remained open in view of evidence allegedly indicating Lieberman was illicitly involved with the companies.
Closing a criminal case due to lack of sufficient evidence does not constitute a public "kosher certificate" and cannot wipe away all the doubts and suspicions surrounding the case. However, that was up to the public to judge, he said.
A few hours after Weinstein announced his decision, Lieberman held a press conference in Tel Aviv and hinted he would not resign.
"I said in the past that if there's an indictment I'd resign, but that was about the main case, not this one," he said.
He said he asked the Knesset to remove his immunity. "I want to have as fast a trial as possible," he said.
He accused the police and prosecution of persecuting him for many years.
"I immigrated to Israel in 1978. Up to 1996 I paid for two parking tickets. From 1996 [when the investigations against him started] to this day there wasn't a single day in which I wasn't interrogated, a suspect or an intelligence target," he said.
Lieberman said that in 2008, while in the opposition, he went as an MK to an event in Belarus where he met with the ambassador, Ze'ev Ben Aryeh, at the envoy's request. "He gave me an envelope and asked me to look at it. At first after opening it, I didn't understand what I was looking at, then I realized and said to him: 'Don't fool around' and then I threw it into the toilet and flushed." Since then, Lieberman insists, he has forgotten about it.
Lieberman rejected allegations that he acted to promote Ben Aryeh and said all the appointment committee members agreed on the appointment.