police car - Moti Kimche
An Israel Police vehicle at a crime scene. Photo by Moti Kimche
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What appear to be serious flaws in the police's witness protection methods have come to light as a result of a Supreme Court decision to uphold a landmark ruling in favor of a former witness.

Supreme Court Justice Zvi Zylbertal's ruling, made last week, revealed some details of a previous district court ruling on the matter, which had been under a gag order.

At the beginning of January, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Amiram Benyamini ruled in favor of a former witness and his wife, who had sued Israel Police for damages after their identity was uncovered. The judge accused four police officials of negligence and said they were directly responsible for the witnesses' situation and the potential danger they may be facing. The names of all those involved - plaintiffs and defendants alike - remain under a gag order.

The landmark ruling is likely to implicate large parts of the State Prosecutor's Office and the Israel Police, including the investigations division, headed by Brig. Gen. Efraim Bracha.

At a second stage, Benyamini was due to decide on damages to which the plaintiffs were entitled. But before he did, the State Prosecutor's Office appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, claiming that Benyamini wrongly convicted the police officials.

The state asked Zylbertal to hear the appeal before the district court case was closed, saying the ruling may have far-flung consequences for the work of the police.

"The [district] court statements will bear immediate and significant ramifications on the battle of the law enforcement authorities against serious crime," the appeal said. "These are allegations that touch upon the most basic practices of the law-enforcement system."

Zylbertal rejected the appeal and said that even though Benyamini's ruling was seminal, it should not be debated before the sum of the damages is ruled, and that the prosecution's claims about the immediate consequences of Benyamini's ruling were vague and unconvincing.

Police investigations often involve the recruitment of witnesses, who operate as double agents. They usually continue to be involved in criminal activity.

In April last year, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss issued an incisive report on the police's witness protection program. The report highlighted significant systemic failures, including the neglect of many police regulations, a flawed organizational culture and lack of cooperation between police officials.

Lindenstrauss looked into a complaint that had been filed by a former official of the police investigations and intelligence division, retired Commander Yisrael Abarbanel, who claimed that two witnesses who had been hired by the police were murdered in 2006 as a result of serious police negligence. He also said that the problems were not investigated properly, and that former Police Commissioner David Cohen and his successor, Yohanan Danino (then head of the police investigations and intelligence division), should be held accountable.

The comptroller did not place direct responsibility on the officials, but found serious flaws in the police's witness protection methods.