The Jerusalem District Court rejected on Wednesday a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be absent during the first session of his corruption trial, set for Sunday.
The three-judge panel ruled that the reasoning behind Netanyahu's request did not justify such a deviation from the norm, which requires the presence of the accused at the opening of his or her trial.
"This is how it is in every criminal proceeding, and this is how it will be in current criminal proceeding," the judges wrote in their ruling.
Netanyahu claimed on Tuesday that his and his bodyguards’ presence would violate Health Ministry coronavirus restrictions. He also said his presence at a what he said was a technical proceeding was unnecessary and would “cost the public a fortune.”
"The petitioner [Netanyahu] claims that his presence is not necessary in court for the reading of the charge sheet," the judges wrote. "It is upon the petitioner, like all other defendents, to stand up and say his part in court."
The judges added that Netanyahu's bodyguards had already been taken into account when calculating how many people would be present in the courtroom. However, they did reject an additional request by Netanyahu to be represented by more than one lawyer, citing the Health Ministry's restrictions on gatherings.
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In January, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit indicted Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three cases.
The so-called Case 1000 involves lavish gifts that the prime minister allegedly received. Case 2000 alleges legislation in exchange for favorable news coverage from the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. Case 4000 involves allegations of beneficial regulatory treatment for the Bezeq telecommunications firm in exchange for favorable news coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news website.
Charges against the prime minister will be formally laid out in the first session, scheduled for Sunday at the Jerusalem District Court.
The prime minister filed the request a day after sending it to the State Prosecutor’s Office for an opinion. The State Prosecutor’s Office rejected the request, saying that a suspect's presence at their own hearing bears importance in showing equality of all suspects before the law.
Its statement also noted that the first session of a hearing is not a "technicality," but rather has great significance for the rest of the trial. Furthermore, it said, its decision was specifically about the first session and future requests would be considered.
Netanyahu’s lawyers, Amit Hadad and Micha Fettman, said the response by the State Prosecutor’s Office was “clearly unfounded” and that under certain circumstances the law allows defendants to be absent for large portions of court proceedings. The attorneys said in a statement that what motivated the response was a desire to assist the media in “presenting the image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the dock as a continuation of the ‘Anyone but Bibi’ campaign.”
The State Prosecutor’s Office criticized the lawyers’ statement, calling it “unacceptable.” “We regret that the attorneys lent a hand to a reckless attack against their prosecutor colleagues, as well as the fraudulent attempt to attribute irrelevant motives to representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office.”
The trial was initially scheduled to open on March 17, but was delayed after former Justice Minister Amir Ohana temporarily suspended court activity as part of the coronavirus emergency regulations