Israeli State Prosecutor Admits He Went Too Far in Blocking Chief Pathologist Appointment

In letter to prosecutorial watchdog, Shai Nitzan addresses his intervention in appointment of Maya Forman-Reznik’s appointment as head of the forensic medicine department.

Ronny Linder
Revital Hovel
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State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. Under fire from district prosecutors.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ronny Linder
Revital Hovel

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan has admitted that he overstepping his authority last year when he instructed the director general of the Health Ministry at the time to block the promotion of a pathologist who had testified in favor of a murder suspect in a controversial trial.

In 2014, Nitzan wrote a letter to Prof. Ronni Gamzu requesting that Dr. Maya Forman-Reznik’s appointment as head of the forensic medicine department at the National Institute for Forensic Medicine, commonly known as Abu Kabir, be withdrawn, despite the fact that Forman-Reznick had won the tender for the post.

In a recent letter to the head of a new commission for prosecutorial oversight, retired Judge Hila Gerstel, Nitzan argued that he did not intend to instruct Gamzu to withdraw Forman-Reznick’s appointment, but only asked him to reconsider the decision. Nitzan presented this as an error in wording or as a misunderstanding.

The background to Nitzan’s appeal to Gamzu, in May 2014, was allegations of unprofessional conduct directed against Forman-Reznick by Nazareth District Court when they convicted Roman Zadorov, for a second time, of murdering Tair Rada. The verdict in the retrial was issued six weeks after Forman-Reznick was awarded the tender for the position at Abu Kabir.

Forman-Reznick testified at the Zadorov trial under instructions from the Supreme Court, which returned the case to the district court based on her recommendation. Forman-Reznick argued that one of the cuts on Rada’s body was made with a serrated knife, not a straight-edged utility knife, as claimed by Zadorov in a confession that he later retracted. The defense wanted to use this fact to overturn Zadorov’s confession. Forman-Reznick’s opinion is supported by Israel’s senior pathologist, the head of Abu Kabir, Dr. Chen Kugel.

Nitzan’s attempt to rescind Forman’s appointment reached the Tel Aviv District Labor Court. The trial there ended in a compromise last March. Since then Gerstel has asked Nitzan about the legal grounds that led him to ask Gamzu to revoke Forman-Reznick’s appointment. Nitzan believed he had a duty to bring the information to Gamzu and express his opinion, since the forensic institute regularly provides its findings to state prosecutors.

The law stipulates that the authority to cancel an appointment to public office rests with the Civil Service Commissioner. Grounds for cancelation include disciplinary or criminal offenses. Where there is incompatibility an employee gets an opportunity to be heard, as well as to appeal. Commissioner Moshe Dayan has expressed no comments on the Forman issue but was present at discussions around it. Senior officials in Dayan’s office believed that “the state prosecution’s actions border on persecution.”

In any case, the labor court ruled that “none of the provisions stipulated by law apply in order to justify canceling Forman’s appointment.” Judge Idit Itzkovitz stated that Nitzan’s actions were unreasonable.

Gerstel’s letter, distributed on Monday, shows that she held several discussions with Nitzan regarding his conduct. This led to a soft version of an admission to an error, in which he suggested that he had only asked Gamzo to reconsider the appointment. “I probably should have worded things differently” said Nitzan. Gerstel, who is in the midst of a campaign to assert the legitimacy of her commission, accepted his explanation.

However, her decision to accept his laconic admission to an error ignores the chain of events and the activism exhibited by Nitzan and his colleagues, supported by the attorney general, in their demand to cancel the appointment. Thus, she disregarded the labor court proceedings initiated by the state prosecution, which were meant to supress the appointment. This was done despite the Health Ministry’s support of Forman-Reznick and the conflict of interest inherent in the fact that the prosecution was handling the Zadorov file in which Forman-Reznick was a witness for the defense.

In a letter to Gamzu, Nitzan wrote that “the Nazareth court’s decision (on Zadorov) makes it difficult for the state to rely on Dr. Forman-Reznik as an expert witness and as an employee of the forensic institute. I appeal to you not to let her commence working at the institute or at least to postpone this until the Supreme Court issues a ruling on Zadorov’s appeal. The public’s confidence in public health services requires this step. This trust will be damaged if someone is appointed to this post after the court ruled that she provided a biased opinion favoring those who ordered it.”

The new Director General of the Health Ministry, Prof. Arnon Afek, presented Forman-Reznick with an ultimatum prepared by state prosecutors, according to which she can assume office only if she doesn’t submit opinions which may reach a court and that her appointment be reviewed again after the Supreme Court rules on Zadorov’s appeal. If she refuses these conditions she will lose the job.

Forman-Reznick rejected these conditions since they voided her job of real content and since they constituted an admission of non-professional behavior and a tying of her fate to that of Zadorov. Former Health Minister Yael German rejected these conditions and ordered that Forman-Reznick start her work immediately. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein called for a meeting. His deputy, Dina Zilber, sided with Nitzan and stated that the circumstances (the court’s criticism of Forman-Reznick) pose great difficulties for her appointment. “Her unconditional employment is extremely unreasonable” she stated, adding that Nitzan, despite his admission, had requested that she not be allowed to start work.

The state prosecution persisted in its demand to cancel the appointment even after German, her director general and the ministry’s legal counsel insist on Forman-Reznick’s right to start working. “The injustice caused to Forman-Reznick by canceling the appointment and the damage to her professional reputation, dignity and employment opportunities are great and unjust, and without legal basis, in our opinion, with dangerous implications” wrote German. “Denying her access to work would be a gross violation of human rights and basic values, law and justice and the stated reasons given by the State Prosecutor don’t justify this.”

The Health Ministry was represented in labor court by the state prosecutor’s office, which presented only its own side. Health Ministry officials weren’t updated and were viewed, in their words, “as enemies” by the state prosecution.

The trial lasted for eight months. The state prosecution tried to censor an affidavit given by the head of the forensic institute who supported Forman-Reznick’s professional opinion in the Zadorov case. Gerstel is now looking into this incident as well as the state prosecution’s conflict of interest.