Holyland and the Statute of Limitations

The lack of clarity on the statute of limitations is just one reason why a progress report on the Holyland investigation needs to be issued.


Holyland housing project in Jerusalem
Emil Salman

The investigation of the Holyland affair and all its spin-offs is probably one of the most complex probes ever undertaken by the Israel Police. It is rare for the courts to approve the detention of so many suspects, some for long periods of time.

As the questioning of Shula Zaken (who was released to house arrest yesterday) proceeds, the prosecution and the investigators will have to decide whether they will ask the court to issue an arrest warrant for the former prime minister, who is not entitled to any special privileges. In any event, his interrogation will take place in a police facility and he will have no control over the time or place.

But no mention has yet been made of the possibility that at least some of the alleged offenses may fall under the statute of limitations. When we recall, for example, that Ehud Olmert began his term as mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 and ended it in 2003, it is clear that this is a legitimate concern. This issue is relevant for other suspects in the investigation as well.

The Criminal Procedure Law stipulates explicit and unbending directives on the limitations of criminal prosecution. The law states that an individual shall not be prosecuted for an offense if a specified number of years has passed since the alleged crime was committed. Offenses carrying a maximum punishment of more than three years in prison, such as bribery, have a 10-year statute of limitations. The statute of limitations on offenses with a maximum custodial sentence of three years, such as breach of trust, is five years. There are certain exceptions, but they are not relevant to the Holyland investigation.

The law states that "an individual shall not be prosecuted" for offenses on which the statute of limitations has run out. From this it can be inferred that there is no restriction on police investigations of offenses that have passed the statute of limitations; the police, however, are responsible for investigating crimes that are likely to lead to an indictment. After such a lengthy investigation, the dates connected to offenses that do not fall under the statute of limitations should be clear to the police by now.

The law also states that for serious crimes, a police investigation stops the clock on the statute of limitations. This raises the question of when the investigation into Holyland and related affairs began, as that is the most important thing for distinguishing between offenses on which the statute of limitations has run out and those that, with sufficient evidence, could lead to an indictment. This distinction played a fundamental role in drafting the indictment against former president Moshe Katsav; as a result, he was not prosecuted for one of the offenses.

The lack of clarity on the issue of the statute of limitations, which cannot have escaped the lawyers working for the police and the prosecution, is just one reason why a progress report on the Holyland investigation needs to be issued. Generally speaking, when senior public figures are under investigation for criminal activity, an official report should be released to avoid intentional or unintentional errors.

The release of quotes from anonymous sources or "figures close to the investigation" can create the impression that these lines convey reliable information. The recent police statement refuting reports that a relative of Zaken had turned state's witness points to the authorities' recognition of the need for official statements. The concise official statement released on the matter stressed that there was "no truth" to reports about contacts with Zaken and that "in any event they did not originate with the police or the Prosecutor's Office." The police spokesman announced that Zaken had been summoned for questioning during her stay abroad, and that she "had not yet reported for questioning." Only a statement by her attorney, Micha Pettman - which was not denied - elucidated that the summons did not name a specific date for the questioning.

When Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court Judge Abraham Heiman - who examined the investigation's conclusions and decided to remand certain suspects, in some cases for extended periods - states that this is "one of the most serious cases in the history of the state," it is clear that an official progress report on the matter would serve a vital public interest.

It follows that such a report is not meant to be complete or detailed, but could contain something that would prevent unfounded reports, some of which are not helpful to the investigation. A clarification from State Prosecutor Moshe Lador regarding the statute of limitations could focus the investigation, which is supposed to reveal offenses that are prosecutable and have a high likelihood of producing convictions.