Law License of Activist Charged With Targeting Bankers Suspended

Barak Cohen’s alleged offenses were committed as part of his activities with Ba’im Lebankim, a group of anti-banking activists

Barak Cohen (right) and members of the Ba'im Lebankim group in a court hearing in Tel Aviv in 2013.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Israel Bar Association on Monday suspended for 18 months the law license of a social activist who was charged in December with extortion and other crimes against bank executives.

A disciplinary tribunal in the association’s Tel Aviv chapter voted 2-1 to suspend Barak Cohen.

Cohen’s alleged offenses were committed as part of his activities with Ba’im Lebankim, a group of anti-banking activists. His alleged victims include Bank Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach and former Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Kenan. Cohen is charged with extortion, violations of privacy, conspiracy to commit a crime, harassment, disturbing the peace, attacking a policeman and insulting a public servant.

According to the indictment, Cohen posted to the internet phone conversations that he initiated and recorded with relatives of Russak-Aminoach and Kenan. In addition, he and fellow activists posted dozens of posters near Russak-Aminoach’s home and her daughter’s school, featuring the CEO’s image and the message, “It’s not your fault your mother is a criminal.

The tribunal rejected Cohen’s argument that his actions constituted legitimate protest. “We cannot accept or legitimize any behavior by a lawyer that hurts, harasses or threatens someone, regardless of his status or position,” and even if this is part of “a social or political struggle,” wrote the tribunal’s chairman, attorney Marvin Kohen.

“A lawyer cannot behave like an ordinary citizen who goes out to demonstrate,” the ruling said, adding that lawyers are bound to a code of ethics that includes behaving in an honorable manner and respecting the dignity of the profession and the public’s trust.”

Michal Rabinovitch said in a concurring opinion that Cohen “blew up the entirety of the existing code of ethics and genuinely damaged the character of the profession.”

Cohen had argued that the entire disciplinary process was tainted by his fraught relationship with Israel Bar Association President Efraim Nave, who has accused Cohen in the past of trying to extort him. But Rabinovitch rejected this argument, saying the disciplinary tribunal is completely independent, “and it’s impossible to say there’s a policy of removing attorneys with certain political and social views from the Bar Association.”

In a dissenting opinion, however, Yossi Ben-David argued that Cohen shouldn’t be suspended, because the crimes for which he has been indicted “have no relationship to the legal profession or the services he provides, and because I wasn’t convinced there’s any danger in his continued employment in the legal profession.” The disciplinary tribunal ought to be particularly cautious, he added, because the indictment itself raises questions about “freedom of expression and its boundaries.”

An attorney can be hauled before a Bar Association disciplinary tribunal only if a complaint is filed to his local chapter’s ethics committee and the committee itself decides to refer the issue to a tribunal. In the case of an attorney charged with a crime, the tribunal may decide to suspend his license if, in its view, the crime entails moral turpitude.

Normally, however, such suspensions aren’t for a specified length of time. Rather, they remain in force until the trial court issues its verdict on the indictment, or until the end of the appeals process if the verdict is appealed.

“Legally speaking, this was an erroneous decision that overrode a minority opinion, and naturally, I’ll file an appeal,” Cohen told Haaretz. “Politically speaking, this was another attempt to ‘persuade’ me to retreat from my battle against various people in power who harm every resident of this country. I wouldn’t advise these political rivals to celebrate prematurely; we’ve only just begun enjoying the fight.”