Shas MK Benizri Gets 18 Months' Jail for Corruption

MK also gets 8-month suspended sentence, NIS 80,000 fine; Benizri: I'm the victim of a witch hunt.

The Jerusalem District Court on Sunday sentenced Shas MK Shlomo Benizri to 18 months incarceration, a suspended sentence of eight months, and NIS 80,000 in fines following his conviction for bribery and other charges of corruption.

Benziri's political and spiritual patron, Rabbi Reuven Elbaz was handed a suspended sentence of eight months in prison and a NIS 120,000 fine.

Benizri told Israel Radio after Sunday's conviction that he was the victim of a "witch hunt" and proclaimed his innocence. A spokesman for Benizri said the MK plans to appeal his conviction.

Benizri was convicted for far less than is attributed to him in the indictment. "The risks that he faced were numerous and substantial and great emphasis must be placed on the fact that [Benizri] was acquitted of the main bribery charges attributed to him over the apartment and $200,000 in monthly payments," reads the verdict.

The judge added that "the lengthy investigation and procedures were a source of torment and suffering for [Benizri]."

In early April, the court ruled that Benizri had received hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of services from contractor Moshe Sela, including furniture, installation of an air-conditioning system, payments to a charity and renovations. In addition, Sela donated NIS 200,000 and $30,000 to a yeshiva.

Following his conviction, Benizri was automatically suspended from the Knesset, and his monthly Knesset salary will be halved to NIS 16,629.

Benizri was convicted of conspiring to commit a crime and obstruction of justice because he agreed with Sela to lie about his accepting perks. The two attempted to coordinate their stories with others involved.

Benizri, however, was acquitted of receiving money from Sela apparently in order to pay off a mortgage, or possibly some other form of regular assistance. He was also acquitted of receiving monthly payments of $200,000.

The former minister and Elbaz were accused of accepting money and favors from Sela between 1996 and 2001, when Benizri served as health minister, deputy health minister and labor and welfare minister. At the time, Sela owned human resources companies that brought foreign workers into Israel.

Benizri was accused of influencing Employment Service decisions regarding foreign worker quota allocations to various contractors and of giving Sela valuable confidential information.

A certain percentage of Sela's profits was transferred to Elbaz and his Or Hahaim yeshiva network. The prosecution argued that Benizri knew that the transfer of funds would improve his standing with Elbaz and the Shas movement.

Sela turned state's witness after the allegations were made, and his testimony allowed prosecutors to turn their suspicions into an indictment against Benizri and Elbaz.

According to the charge sheet, Sela gave Benizri money monthly in 2000 and 2001 as well as $200,000 at the end of 2001, bought the apartment next door to Benizri and expanded his house, bought him electronics and furniture, and even promised him a silent partnership in a hotel on the Dead Sea coast.

In June 2001, Sela allegedly gave Elbaz NIS 1 million in checks - of which he put only NIS 200,000 in the yeshiva's bank account, fearing that the payments would generate suspicion. Sela cancelled the rest of the checks and gave Elbaz $190,000 in cash. After Benizri and Elbaz promised Sela they would help him win the tender for transporting foreign agricultural workers, Sela gave Elbaz another $400,000 and NIS 180,000.

Benizri was also accused of appointing Sela's associates to positions of public trust in his bureau. These included Sela's wife, Edna, who was appointed bureau chief when Benizri served as health minister.

Shas has been dogged by a series of corruption scandals over the years.