Israel’s Justice Ministry has decided to assign a security detail to Deputy State Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari, the chief prosecutor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which is set to begin on Sunday.
Ben Ari – who was assigned a security detail in the past – will therefore arrive at the court on Sunday accompanied by bodyguards. The move came following a recommendation from Israel Police.
The Justice Ministry is also considering instructing Ben Ari to use the judges’ entrance to the District Court in Jerusalem, which would be an extremely unusual step, not taken even during the trials of organized crime bosses. It still hasn’t been decided whether Ben Ari’s deputy, attorney Yonatan Tadmor, will also be assigned a bodyguard.
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Security officials have expressed concerns that demonstrators in front of the court will try to hurl objects at Ben Ari or her aides. The safety of the prosecution in Netanyahu’s trial has been the subject of almost daily assessments made at the Justice Ministry and the police.
While Ben Ari was part of the team in charge of the investigations into Netanyahu’s criminal cases, unknown individuals would be seen in the community where she resides, asking questions about her and trying to get information about her son and husband.
In 2018, Haaretz reported that security personnel searched Ben Ari’s house and decided to “keep an eye on her,” fearing that attempts will be made to obtain information about investigations she was involved in, including those of Netanyahu. Ben Ari told her colleagues that she felt she was being followed and that her phone was tapped.
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Last week, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit filed a police complaint after receiving threats on his personal phone.
These messages, which were apparently part of an organized effort, were sent all throughout the night and the early morning hours. They included threats, incitements and invectives, the ministry said in a statement. The ministry's security officer has been briefed, the statement added.
A screenshot from a WhatsApp group of Likud activists seen by Haaretz showed a member sharing Mendelblit's number and calling on others to harass him with questions.
Among the texts sent to Mendelblit were calls for him to commit suicide, as well as threats such as "You're vulnerable," and "We'll get to you."
In private conversations the attorney general said that former Justice Minister Amir Ohana and acting State Prosecutor Dan Eldad were trying to “bring him down,” and that he couldn’t rule out Netanyahu’s involvement in these efforts.
In January, 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.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Jerusalem District Court rejected a request by Netanyahu to be absent during the first session of his corruption trial.
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.
The fact that Netanyahu’s request was denied will make it easier to protect the prosecutors, since security arrangements for the prime minister require civilians to be kept away from the courtroom.
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 froze the courts as part of the coronavirus emergency regulations.