How Prosecutors Let Reputed Mobster Beat the Rap for Organized Crime

A series of serious failings by the police and the State Prosecutor's Office southern district led to Monday's acquittal of reputed mobster Yaniv Zaguri of membership in an organized-crime organization, judges said this week.

The police and state prosecutors had hoped the case could serve as a model revealing the inner workings of a prosperous crime organization. Instead, failed plea agreements and mishandled evidence led to what the judges described as a textbook botched case.

Suspecting Zaguri of running a ring of illegal gambling clubs, police paid NIS 500,000 to state witness Tal Korkus to testify against Zaguri. Korkus was promised $120,000 to start a new life abroad and NIS 4,000 a month for a year and a half to settle in.

Ultimately, however, Zaguri was acquitted of heading a crime organization due to a lack of evidence. The judges, headed by Be'er Sheva District Court deputy president Sarah Dovrat, said that there were "contradictions in most of Korkus' testimonies to both the police and court, and even among various testimonies in court."

In her ruling, Dovrat wrote at length about what she described as "the problem of individual memory, or intentional forgetfulness."

Zaguri was acquitted due to reasonable doubt over his membership in a crime organization and a series of offenses related to that membership. But he was convicted of conspiracy to commit a crime, weapons offenses, extortion and vandalism of property - for placing a grenade near the home of an intelligence official at a Be'er Sheva prison. The blast killed the official's dog.

In the months before the ruling, the southern district state prosecutor, Yiska Leibowitz, failed to reach a number of generous plea agreements offered by the defense.

Initially both sides were offered to include the charges of membership in a criminal organization in another case against Zaguri for alleged financial misdeeds. The penalty under that agreement would have been a fine of several hundred thousand shekels and a lengthy prison term. The state prosecutor, however, rejected the offer.

Toward the end of legal deliberations, on the eve of signing an agreement sentencing Zaguri to 10 years in prison, the state prosecutor sought to raise the sentence by another four and a half years.

During the proceedings at Be'er Sheva District Court, details also emerged that the police failed to deliver important evidence to the defense team.

The defense claimed that it is unacceptable that from late February 2008 (when Korkus originally contacted police investigator Rafael Amos and offered to cooperate on the case) to April 2008 (when the state signed a deal with him), no investigative procedures were conducted on the case. It also emerged that although investigators had held many talks with Korkus, they did not document them as required.

"I was filled with dismay to hear the answers and considerations that led the investigators not to document the testimony of a state witness," Dovrat wrote in the ruling. "Any explanation that was given is not an explanation. Most are excuses, none are explanations."

Two become one

At the start of legal proceedings, when only some of the errors committed by the authorities had come to light, the case was transferred to Be'er Sheva District Court's former president, Judge (Ret.) Yehoshua Pilpel.

He suggested that the case be combined with the other case involving charges of money-laundering and tax evasion.

According to Pilpel's recommendation, Zaguri would pay the state a fine of several hundred thousand shekels and serve a prison term of at least five years in exchange for having the two cases closed.

The state prosecutor, however, insisted on pursuing the two cases separately.

The case was again brought under the authority of the judges led by Dovrat, who urged both sides to reach an out-of-court settlement. In January, the attorney appointed to the case by the state prosecutor, Yoav Kishon, was summoned to court.

A judge told him there were "very serious failings" in the handling of the case and that the State Prosecutor's Office must "examine very well what happened."

One of Zaguri's attorneys, Lior Epstein, said yesterday that "instead of serving as a tool to criticize the police, the state prosecutor served the police's caprices concerning Zaguri."

Representatives of the state prosecutor's southern district declined to discuss the failed attempts to reach a plea agreement or any other failings in legal procedure.

"We are sorry that we didn't reach a plea agreement with Zaguri," a senior official at the district said this week. "The fact that the court did or didn't accept our argument doesn't mean that we made a mistake."