Hirchson Gets 5.5-year Prison Sentence; Benizri Gets 4 Years

Two former ministers were handed lengthy prison sentences in separate courts yesterday, after being convicted on bribery and corruption charges. Tel Aviv District Court sentenced former finance minister Abraham Hirchson to five years and five months in jail, as well as a fine of NIS 450,000, for embezzling NIS 1.8 million from the National Workers Organization while he was its chairman. The Supreme Court sentenced former Shas minister Shlomo Benizri to four years in prison, with a NIS 250,000 fine, following his conviction last year on bribery and other corruption charges.

Hirchson was convicted of receiving cash payments of tens of thousands of shekels on a semi-monthly basis over the course of several years. He returned NIS 570,000 in cash to the National Workers Organization on Tuesday, in addition to NIS 1.16 million in checks.

Hirchson's attorney, Yaakov Weinroth, requested that the start of his client's prison sentence be delayed until after he had appealed to the Supreme Court to mitigate the penalty.

District Judge Bracha Ophir-Tom ruled that Hirchson would begin serving his sentence on July 26, unless the Supreme Court permitted further delay.

The prosecution said the state had grounds for suspecting Hirchson as a flight risk and asked the court that he post additional bail to ensure he stayed in Israel.

So far Hirchson had been forced to post a considerable bail to ensure he remained in Israel: he was bailed on his own recognizance for NIS 2.5 million, a third-party guarantee of NIS 2.5 million, a NIS 50,000 deposit and a NIS 150,000 lien on his apartment.

Following the prosecutor's demand, the judge ruled that Hirchson would have to deposit by noon today an additional self-recognizance bail of NIS 100,000 and a NIS 300,000 third-party bail.

Judge Ophir-Tom said the verdict must convey a clear message that "a senior public official who abuses his position and the public trust should be condemned and given a penalty as harsh as any rank-and-file offender would receive."

The judge wondered what made Hirchson turn from a person who assisted Holocaust survivors and was involved in public works into one who embezzled public funds. Was it the "intoxication of power" or "unbridled greed combined with the lawlessness in which the organization he worked in was run," she wrote.

The prosecutor, who had sought a seven-year prison sentence for Hirchson, said the attorney general and state prosecutor would consider appealing for a harsher sentence.

Earlier yesterday, the Supreme Court sentenced former Shas minister Shlomo Benizri to four years in prison and an NIS 250,000 fine for his 2008 conviction - in which he had been found guilty of receiving bribes, breach of trust, conspiracy to commit a crime and subverting the course of justice.

Benizri, who was labor minister at the time, violated the law in helping his friend Moshe Sela to obtain permits to bring foreign workers to Israel, in exchange for NIS 100,000. Sela, who turned state's witness, also reportedly gave Benizri hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of services and perks, such as furniture, an air-conditioning system and renovations.

Benizri had appealed his original sentence last April - 18 months incarceration, a suspended sentence of eight months, and NIS 80,000 in fines - following his conviction for bribery and other charges of corruption.

Benizri, however, was acquitted of receiving money from Sela apparently in order to pay off a mortgage, or possibly some other form of regular assistance. He was also acquitted of receiving monthly payments of $200,000.

"This is a difficult day for me and my loved ones, my wife and my kids, some of whom were born while this affair was taking place," Benizri said as he came out of court.

Benizri added that he had been through "nine years of torture" and that he had been "persecuted by the media".

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador released a joint statement after the sentences were handed down, calling it "a sad day for Israeli society," but adding that the sentences send "an important and reassuring message that it is undergoing a process of cleaning out government corruption."