`If I could sue the judges for libel, I would'

Aryeh Deri sues a police commander to clear his name

Logic would dictate that after 13 years of investigations, a conviction and jail time, Aryeh Deri will want to leave his legal battles behind him and move on. But three months ago, Deri and friend Moshe Reich filed a libel suit in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court against the person who headed the Israel Police's special team of inquiry in his case, Commander Meir Gilboa, who is now the director of the Antitrust Authority's investigations department.

Deri is now awaiting the Supreme Court President Aharon Barak's decision on his request for a retrial. His feud with Gilboa, however, has a history: About a month after the Deri verdict was handed down, and the day after the sentence was issued on April 15, 1999, Gilboa was interviewed on television and in the press and said some very harsh things about Deri - for example, that his behavior and that of his colleagues during the inquiry "contained numerous elements of organized crime." However, Deri and Reich's libel suit against him focuses on another matter: his comments on the suspicions, which were investigated at the time by the New York City Police Department, that Deri was behind the car accident in which his mother-in-law Esther Verderber died on June 28, 1991. (Verderber had adopted Yaffa Deri.)

The New York police found nothing suspicious in her death. Why is Deri reawakening suspicion via the libel suit?

Deri explains in an interview with Haaretz that after the verdict in 1999, "Gilboa and the others" knew that he, Deri, was aware of all "the holes" in his trial, various matters related to the state's witness in his trial, Yaakov Shmulevitz, and knew that he "wouldn't break quickly, and instead would come out and talk." At the time, the election campaign for the 15th Knesset was underway and Deri was heading Shas's election campaign and went on to win 17 Knesset seats for the party.

"In my opinion, Gilboa, or whoever sent him - I don't know or maybe he went on his own - his goal was to remove me from the public sphere, to make it so I wouldn't be able to go outside. It was as if Gilboa had said, `Don't think that this man is just a thief, took a bribe. This man is suspected of murder.' That was his aim."

Deri has no doubt that this was a personal vendetta. "It's clear to me beyond any doubt. It was Gilboa's life's work for many years. From being an anonymous policeman, he gained international publicity. With great aspirations and ambition, he wanted not only to send me to jail, but also to make sure that I would be removed from the scene once and for all, as if `I got rid of the mafia leader. The murderer.'"

Gilboa told Haaretz: "There's no point in responding on this matter. Okay, so he said that. So many people have said so many things about me. So be it."

`My fuse went off'

Deri and Reich filed a private criminal complaint against Gilboa in the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court after his comments on Esther Verderber's accident. However, according to the criminal law code, a criminal complaint may not be filed against a civil servant for an action carried out in the fulfillment of his duty unless it is with the consent of the attorney general, and Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein did not give his consent.

Rubinstein argued that Gilboa's remarks were made in the fulfillment of his duty as a civil servant, even though at the time they were made, Gilboa was no longer the head of the special team of inquiry. The court accepted Rubinstein's position and decided to reject the complaint.

Deri and Reich appealed the ruling in the Jerusalem District Court, but their appeal was rejected.

Deri told Haaretz he was very disappointed, but he was busy at the time dealing with his request for a retrial. In the meantime, he served his prison sentence and upon his release, began reorganizing his life. Why, nevertheless, did he remember the need to sue Gilboa? He says he found out now, from conversations with friends he hadn't seen in years, that many people, including very senior politicians, are willing to overlook the charges for which he was convicted, but "are still talking about the murder as a possibility, because of Gilboa's remarks."

"And then my fuse went off," says Deri. In the libel suit, which was filed three months ago in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court by Attorney Yoram Sheftel, Deri and Reich are asking Gilboa for relatively low financial compensation of NIS 114,786 each (the legally permitted minimum amount that can be sought as compensation for slander without proof of damage is NIS 57,393 and the amount is doubled when the slander was publicized with the intent to damage).

Deri: "I have no interest in making money. I want that even if there are some on the margins of society who still think of this matter (the suspicion of murdering Esther Verderber) as a possibility, that they should hear from the court: either an apology from Gilboa, that he recants all those remarks, or a verdict that there was libel spoken here." Deri and Reich are also asking in their claim that the court instruct Gilboa to publish a letter or apology, correction or denial of his remarks in which he retracts "the unfounded suspicions he attributed specifically or by hearsay to the appellants."

The suit filed by Sheftel quotes Gilboa in a Yedioth Ahronoth interview from April 16, 1999 (the day after the verdict was issued): "We have no proof that Esther Verderber was intentionally run over or that Deri sent someone there ... until we arrived and until we received the material, the same hit-and-run driver, a former Israeli whose name is David Tavdidishvilli, who apparently worked as a driver in a garage owned by Moshe Reich, had already served jail time for the accident and had been released. The American police claimed that the material was insufficient to conduct a retrial. In my opinion, it justified a new review of the accident case file."

Later that same day, in an interview on Channel One's "Yoman" news digest, Gilboa said that "there were a few more details, mostly from information - not from standard evidence - that indicated that this was an intentional running over and not an accident. There were of course other possibilities. For example, we reviewed the accident file and it turns out that there was a witness who testified that already a mile or two before the collision point, this driver, who ran over Mrs. Verderber, was speeding and driving crazily, as he said there. So, of course, it is possible that it was just a crazy driver. But it could also be a driver who was rushing to get to that point because someone else told him: `Listen, she's going to cross the street'... we thought it was justified to reopen the investigation. We approached the Americans. They didn't want to and since it was in their turf and we have no jurisdiction in the matter, we dropped it."

Abuhatzeira's interest

This is the time to recall two witnesses in the Deri trial relating to Esther Verderber's accident. One is Richard Friedman, a police officer in the investigations department of the New York State Attorney General's Office. During his cross-examination by Deri's lawyer, Navot Tel-Tzur, on February 12, 1996, Friedman confirmed that the New York State Attorney General agreed to the Israel Police's request to look into the suspicion that Esther Verderber was murdered and did not die in a simple car accident.

"Very quickly we concluded that it was an accident," Friedman said, and added that the Attorney General's Office had no reason to continue investigating the matter. He said he informed the Israel Police representative in North America, Brigadier General Dan Ohad, of this decision "several times" because the Israel Police asked to continue checking information it had received. Due to this insistence, Friedman testified, "I gave it very, very low priority and passed it on." But Gilboa continued to ask Ohad, on behalf of the State Prosecutor, to ask the Americans to check "what information the driver had given the investigating officer in the past." Gilboa also wanted to know the driver's previous places of employment, prior to the accident. The New York Police Department did not find any connection between the driver responsible for the accident and Reich. "We found that he was an employee of the city of New York. I think he worked for a while in some public park," Friedman said.

The other testimony came from Gilboa, who testified on February 19, 1996 that at a certain point the police received information "that the accident was not an accident, but an intentional hit; that the driver and the passenger sitting next to him are Israelis; that the driver has a connection to Moshe Reich - he worked for him; that Moshe Reich has ties to Aryeh Deri; that the incident was commissioned - it is not an accident." The Israel Police asked Brigadier General Ohad to obtain the file that had been opened in New York to investigate the accident and received it. It also conducted inquiries into the case in Israel.

Gilboa said the Americans' unwillingness to continue the investigation "along with a review of the case, led to the decision not to investigate it. Because they were not so eager there to cooperate on this, we dropped it and didn't investigate it at all." In response to a question from the prosecutor, Attorney Yehoshua Reznick, Gilboa told of a meeting the two of them had in New York on October 29 with the prosecutor in the case and the police officer overseeing the investigation into the accident. "They said they had no basis to suspect it wasn't an accident," he said, "even though they related several odd things about the driver's behavior. He disappeared from there for a while."

Gilboa added that "among the information that we received about the accident - not during that meeting - were that Esther was injured, had no identification on her, someone who presented himself as her husband came to the hospital, even though her husband was dead. It was odd, but it wasn't enough on which to base a murder investigation."

In his cross-examination two days later by Attorney Tel-Tzur, Gilboa revealed - after requesting the court's permission not to answer and being turned down - the police's sources of information about the case. He testified that on his previous visit to New York, in October 1991, together with special team of inquiry member Superintendent Nahum Levy, they met - at the instruction of his superiors - in the offices of Jewish businessman Jacques Avital with Baruch Abuhatzeira (the Baba Baruch) and with private investigator Yossi Amir.

Abuhatzeira opened: "We have reliable and solid information that Aryeh Deri ordered the murder of Esther Verderber." He turned to Yossi Amir to present the information.

Tel-Tzur asked: "You knew that Baruch Abuhatzeira had a motive at that time against Deri, who as interior minister was about to disband the Netivot local council, which was headed by an Abuhatzeira associate, Yehiel Zohar, and the Yeroham local council?"

Gilboa answered: "I read about it in the newspapers afterward."

While Gilboa was in New York, Ma'ariv published an article that said that the head of the Yeroham local council, Baruch Almakayis, gave a statement under oath to a lawyer saying that Baruch Abuhatzeira invited him to Netivot and told him: "I met with Roni Milo, the minister of police, and gave him reliable information about how Deri had commissioned the murder of his mother-in-law, and Roni told me that he was sending officers abroad to investigate the matter. Because you have access to Aryeh Deri, go and see him. If he reverses the decision, as interior minister, to disband the Netivot and Yeroham local councils, I'll still be able to stop the information at Roni Milo so that it doesn't go any further. If not, Deri will sit in jail for many more years for murder."

Almakayis stated that he turned down Baruch Abuhatzeira outright.

Tel-Tzur asked Gilboa if he tried after his return from New York in October 1991 to verify this information, which indicated "that really, it was all a result of invalid motives and blackmailing the interior minister."

Gilboa responded: "It's not our job to search for motives. Most of the information that reaches the police comes from questionable sources and the police's job is to check the information."

The prosecution in the case argued that Deri was not interested in questioning Esther Verderber because he feared that it would contradict his version of the money she and her late husband, Isser, had given the Deri family over the years. And then, even though the suspicion of murder was never proven, the Jerusalem District Court saw fit to write on page 25 of its decision, in the part that was read in court and broadcast live in the electronic media: "After some time, Esther dies tragically in a car accident, from which she will not return. Esther took the truth with her to the world of eternal truth. Accused number one (Deri) was not interested in this truth." This can be seen as adopting the prosecution's claim that Deri was not interested in questioning Esther Verderber, but it can also be seen as hinting at the suspicion of Deri's guilt for her death, without formally charging him with it.

It is possible that this is where Gilboa drew encouragement for his remarks. Deri: "Okay, they're judges, what can I do? If there were a procedure for suing judges in a libel case, I would do it. This remark was not an innocent remark."

In the libel suit, Sheftel argues that Gilboa was well aware that the New York Police Department refused at a certain point to continue investigating the matter, due to the findings that overwhelmingly indicated that it was a routine car accident. He was also well aware that the New York City Police Department investigation did not turn up a shred of proof for the suspicion of any connection whatsoever between the driver responsible for the accident and Moshe Reich, who does not know the driver and does not own any garage. And nevertheless, Gilboa raised and kept alive the suspicions against Deri and Reich as those responsible for the death of Esther Verderber and refrained from mentioning the New York Police Department's position.

These comments of his "are a libel and ugly slander of the appellants," Sheftel wrote. They damaged Deri's name, position and public image "above and beyond the damage already caused to them by his conviction on a criminal charge."

Gilboa preferred to have the State Attorney's Office represent him. In Deri's view "it's very undignified, to put it mildly .... Why does the state have to defend a person who says that after the verdict? What `fulfillment of duty' is there in this story? He was not on duty. Who pushed him?"

In the letter of defense submitted to the court around two weeks ago by Attorney Orit Podemsky, a senior deputy to the Tel Aviv District Attorney, and Dorit Yifrah, an aide to the District Attorney, they ask "to instruct that the suit be dismissed outright," arguing that the ruling issued in the private criminal complaint applies here, whereby Gilboa made his remarks while fulfilling his duty as a civil servant and acted within the framework of his legal jurisdiction.