Top Officials Blast Israeli Justice Minister for Breaching Gag Order

Attorney General, Chief Justice stop short of calling out illegality of Amir Ohana's unsubstantiated disclosure of police investigation into PM's corruption case

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From right to left: Chief Justice Shai Nitzan, AG Avichai Mendelblit, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, Tel Aviv, November 4, 2019
From right to left: Chief Justice Shai Nitzan, AG Avichai Mendelblit, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, Tel Aviv, November 4, 2019Credit: Moti Milrod

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan condemned Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s breach of a gag order regarding one of the Netanyahu corruption investigations Wednesday, calling his remarks “extremely grave and a distortion of reality.”

Ohana invoked his immunity as a Knesset member on Wednesday to reveal an interrogation method allegedly used to get Nir Hefetz, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to turn state’s evidence in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla quid pro quo case. A gag order was imposed on the interrogation ploy earlier this week, just as Channel 12 News was about to reveal it.

Ohana’s remarks were “part of a series of tendentious and partial reports meant to deceive the public,” Mendelblit and Nitzan said in a joint statement.

On Wednesday night, Netanyahu himself said that “although the blackmailing of state’s witness Nir Hefetz is extremely serious and ought to disturb every citizen, the court’s gag order must be respected.”

'They bring in a young woman'

Earlier in the day, Ohana attempted to expose police methods that, according to him, led Hefetz to “capitulate,” and sign the state’s evidence agreement.

Speaking during a Knesset session, the justice minister, who has recently come under fire for his gloves-off attempt to defend his leader, said the police had used threats and intimidation.

“Then they bring in a young woman who has nothing to do with the prime minister’s investigation, and ask her a series of intrusive questions on the nature of the relationship between the witness [Hefetz] and her,” Ohana said.

“He’s then taken out with one of the investigators, they leave for an undocumented period of time and we don’t know what went on in that conversation, and then he comes back and gives a full version, tailor-made, that perfectly matches the evidence the police have,” he continued.

His remarks were apparently based on a report on the News1 investigative website. The story was still up on Wednesday night, despite the gag order.

In their statement, Mendelbit and Nitzan said they had rejected Netanyahu’s request to broadcast his hearing live out of a desire to avoid a “media circus,” but now, “we are witness to exactly that – a ridiculous and illegal attempt to conduct the hearing in front of the media, contrary to customary rules.” They added that every day the public is being exposed to reports based on claims by Netanyahu’s attorneys, “even though it’s obvious that the prosecution cannot respond to these selective reports because it would undermine the validity of the hearing process."

“These reports create a misleading representation of the facts and the sequence of events during the investigation,” they said. “Nothing will deter us from continuing to fulfill our task … We will not allow any undermining of the legal process, which will continue in an orderly fashion.”

A misuse of parliamentary immunity

Their announcement did not address the fact that Ohana had exploited his parliamentary immunity to reveal the details, of which publication was forbidden, even though Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon has in the past ruled that deliberately exposing secret information is not covered by parliamentary immunity.

In 2013, Yinon wrote, “planning a statement that constitutes a violation isn’t covered by immunity and in principle it’s possible to prosecute an MK for this, like any other person.” The decision whether to prosecute Ohana would be Mendelblit’s.

Hefetz’s attorney, Ilan Sofer, called Ohana's revelations "a shame and disgrace," and an attempt to capitalize politically on the story, all the while undermining privacy.

"This was an inconceivable act that won’t be allowed to pass without a response and will be dealt with using the appropriate legal means,” the attorney said.

'A complete distortion of reality'

Following the gag order, Channel 12’s report merely claimed that police used inappropriate means to pressure Hefetz. In response, Mendelblit vowed to address any improper actions during Hefetz’s investigation, if such actions had taken place.

Mendelblit wrote that a distinction had to be made between claims that someone who turned state’s evidence didn’t tell the truth and “claims of improper actions during the investigation. If it is found that anything improper was done in handling these cases, this will be examined and dealt with as necessary.”

Addressing allegations that they applied improper pressure on Hefetz, Israel Police said in a statement that all of their actions, including summoning witnesses were "carried out in accordance with investigative needs, the law and legal instructions.” It called reports on the matter “a complete distortion of reality.”

Sources involved in Hefetz’s investigation told Haaretz that the investigative tactics employed were “legitimate,” adding that the Tel Aviv District Attorney's Office tax and finance division didn't know about them in real time, but were notified about them a long time ago.

Judge David Rozen, the prosecution’s ombudsman, recommended in a letter on Tuesday that Mendelblit open a criminal investigation into the cops who leaked material from Netanyahu’s cases to the media before it was handed over to his defense attorneys.

“Leaks from interrogation rooms and state agencies have become a widespread problem... a plague,” Rozen wrote. “It’s clear to everyone that publication of the draft indictment before it has been submitted, or publication of material from the investigation, is intolerable.”

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