gang - Nir Keidar - October 11 2010
The “North Star” suspects in court yesterday. Dozens of security guards were present. Photo by Nir Keidar
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The first state witness in Israel's witness protection program testified yesterday in Petah Tikva District Court in the drug smuggling case dubbed the "North Star" case. It involves 15 defendants who allegedly attempted to smuggle 108 kilograms of cocaine here and elsewhere from Panama. The witness, whose name is barred from publication, was guarded in court by dozens of security guards.

The witness admitted to leaving Israel to engage in drug trafficking and said he decided to testify for the prosecution after his partners in the smuggling operation kidnapped him twice. "I haven't gone through an easy time," he said. "It would have been easiest for me," he added, "to sit in the defense docket."

At one point in the proceedings, the session adjourned so the defendants could discuss a possible plea bargain that would apply to all of them.

According to the indictment, which was filed about a year ago, the accused conspired in 2008 with one Michel Ben-Simon to smuggle 108 kg. of cocaine from Panama to Israel and other countries. The contraband was hidden in sound speakers that were to be sent to Israel.

Ben-Simon allegedly purchased the cocaine and sent it to Panama to be packed in a way that would avoid detection

After a delay in the shipping the drugs, the defendants reportedly fell out with the state's witness. Some of the defendants are also accused of assaulting the witness on a Tiberias beach. The state witness testified that he had been asked by his interrogator if he had information incriminating reputed organized crime figure Amir Mulner. "I told her no, but I could produce [Mulner's reputed right-hand man] Uri Luzon," he said.

The witness told investigators that in giving them information about what he knew, all he asked was that he and his family be protected from harm.

The witness was also said to have told police about the involvement of reputed organized crime boss Ze'ev Rosenstein in ordering a hit on Rafi Weizman. The case against Rosenstein is pending in Nazareth District Court.

In his testimony yesterday, the state witness spoke of secret code words he said he used in communicating with his partners in the drug trade, in wiretapped conversations the police recorded. For example, the city of Barcelona was referred to as "soccer," Amsterdam as "flowers" and Panama as "far away." Some of the defendants interrupted the witness's testimony with jeers and interjected that he was lying. Their lawyers attempted to cast doubt on the witness' credibility.