Israel's State Watchdog Probes Prosecutor’s Asset Seizures

Report question's whether Shai Nitzan’s policy of seizing the assets of criminal suspects violates the rights of suspects

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Shai Nitzan at a legal conference, September 3, 2019.
Shai Nitzan at a legal conference, September 3, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The State Comptroller’s Office is now writing a report on State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s policy of seizing the assets of criminal suspects. This has been one of Nitzan’s flagship projects. Nitzan is expected to retire in December.

Work on the report began during the term of the previous comptroller, Joseph Shapira. The report questions whether the new policy violates the rights of suspects.

Police and prosecutors are able to seize money and other assets of those suspected of committing financial crimes, or when it is likely the suspects will have to pay back money at the end of the legal process. In recent years, Nitzan has increased the amounts authorities have seized so that sometimes all the suspects funds are confiscated and they are forced to live without a bank account and access to money, even before they have been tried or convicted.

In many cases, a large part of the money is returned to the suspects, even if they are convicted. From 2008 through 2017, 3.5 billion shekels ($1 billion) was seized from suspects during the preliminary stages of investigation, but 3 billion shekels of that was returned later, reported the Globes business daily last year. Many defense lawyers have complained to the state comptroller and state prosecution as a result, saying this amounts to financial punishment without trial.

The Supreme Court has also criticized this policy over the past two years. In a session last year in the case of Shaul and Iris Elovitch, at the time suspects in the Bezeq-Walla case involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Isaac Amit wrote: “The conduct of the authorities contradicts basic concepts of our law.” Such conduct “violates property rights” and this should be treated with “extreme caution.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the police and prosecutors had extended the seizure order without permission, and confiscated art objects, watches and even removed rings from their hands. The police could not have been surprised because they arrived at the Elovitches’ home with two trucks and an assessor to estimate the value of the items, and emptied the house of its art, said Amit.

Justice Anat Baron also criticized the confiscation policy. She partially accepted an appeal this year in the case of defendants who allegedly paid bribes and conspired to fix prices in the “Mei Avivim” case, and ordered the amount of the seized assets reduced from 35 million shekels to 18 million shekels, saying it violated their property rights – and the longer the period of the seizure, the greater the harm to their rights.

The law allows such seizures in cases of money laundering, but prosecutors have tried to expand this to include crimes of fraud and breach of trust. Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel blocked this earlier this year and rescinded the seizure of assets from a lawyer who was convicted of fraud and forgery, but was acquitted of money laundering.

After entering office, new State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has tried to make major changes – including taking a more lenient attitude toward the official bodies he oversees.