The corruption trial of Benjamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer was due to begin Monday, in the absence of the former defense minister and veteran Labor Party member, after the Tel Aviv District Court agreed to let him skip his arraignment due to ill health.
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Judge George Kara agreed to Ben-Eliezer’s motion to miss the court session. “The medical documentation paints a picture of a man with many illnesses, the combination of which apparently leads to impaired functioning and an inability to participate in a criminal proceeding,” Kara wrote.
The prosecution had objected to his request to miss the hearing, arguing that Ben-Eliezer has been ill for quite some time, in fact from the day he submitted his candidacy to Israel’s presidency in June 2014, and he is trying to avoid the embarrassment of being slapped with criminal charges.
Kara, however, agreed with the veteran politician's lawyers, Jacob Weinroth and Abraham Shahabazi, that Ben-Eliezer did not have to show up in the courtroom because the state failed to present medical opinions contradicting those that they submitted.
However, Kara also ruled that plans by Ben-Eliezer’s lawyers to file for postponement of the case because of their client’s medical condition were not sufficient grounds for delaying the start of the trial.
In December, Ben-Eliezer, 80, was charged with five counts of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money-laundering and tax evasion – all allegedly committed between 2007 to 2014, years in which he served as a member of Knesset and minister of industry and trade. Ben-Eliezer allegedly demanded, and received, money (which he used to buy real estate, among other things) in exchange for advancing the interests of certain businessmen. He is also charged with not reporting the conversion of hundreds of thousands of dollars into shekels, held both in banks and at his house.
The former minister is also suspected of making false declarations of wealth to the Knesset speaker, which he was required to file as a high-ranking public servant. He allegedly omitted to report on income on which tax was due, and is believed to have neglected to file returns with the Israel Tax Authority and to have avoided paying taxes.
Charges were also filed against Ayelet Azoulay – the head of the minister's bureau at the time – and businessmen Roy Mussaffi, Avraham Nanikashvili and Jacky Ben-Zaken, as well as Ben-Eliezer’s friend, Charlie Yehuda.
The charges were filed after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein rejected Ben-Eliezer’s claims to the contrary at a hearing in late October 2015. Sources knowledgeable about the case say that at that hearing, Ben-Eliezer said he would accept a plea bargain and admit to breach of trust and tax offenses, but he refused to admit to the more serious crimes of money-laundering and graft. He also asked that the court consider the state of his health before pursuing proceedings against him.
His lawyers claim the money at the center of the case took the form of assistance from friends or from loans, and not bribes.