State Prosecutor May Appeal Benizri Sentence

The state prosecutor will apparently appeal the 18-month sentence handed down to Shas MK Shlomo Benizri for corruption, a senior justice official said yesterday. The verdict itself, in which Benizri was acquitted of the indictment's major bribery charges, may also be appealed.

Jerusalem District Court Judge Jacob Zaban yesterday sentenced Benizri to 18 months in prison, 8 months suspended sentence and a fine of NIS 80,000, and further determined that his acts involved moral turpitude.

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

In early April, the court ruled that Benizri had received hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of services from contractor Moshe Sela, while serving as health minister, deputy health minister and labor and welfare minister, between 1996 and 2001. In addition to receiving bribes, Benizri was convicted of breach of faith, conspiracy to commit a crime and obstruction of justice. Rabbi Elbaz was convicted of acting as the go-between in the bribery cases and of conspiracy to commit a crime.

Benizri was acquitted of other charges, including receiving monthly payments and a one time payment of $200,000 from Sela, who turned state witness.

In sentencing Benizri, the judge noted mitigating circumstances, including his conviction of offenses far less than those of which he was accused, the lengthy investigation, and the "pre-judgment" as he put it, of Benizri in the media.

In sentencing Elbaz, the judge called him "a soldier and a general in the social and educational system" whose contribution was so great that it should be taken into account.

The State Prosecutor's Office, in a meeting before Passover, had requested a seven-year sentence for Benizri, a higher fine and a finding of moral turpitude, and was reportedly surprised by the lesser sentence, as well as the suspended sentence for Elbaz. In the presentation of arguments during the sentencing phase of the trial, Jerusalem district prosecutor Nurit Litman said the case was without precedent because of Benizri's status. "We believe a more severe punishment should have been given in light of the findings in the verdict and in light of the remarks in the sentence," Litman said after the sentencing, adding that the State Prosecutor's Office would be considering shortly whether to appeal.

Benizri told Israel Radio after yesterday's conviction that he was the victim of a "witch hunt" and proclaimed his innocence. He also said that he would appeal the sentence to the High Court.

Benizri's attorney, Moshe Itzhak Osditcher, said yesterday: "This is a gigantic failure of the state prosecutor, in light of the fact that the case has been going on for years and due to the resources invested in a huge investigation, with the case being defined by the state prosecutor as the biggest bribery case ever. I am sure we'll be exonerated by the High Court," he added.

Attorney Abraham Lavi, who is representing Elbaz together with attorney Avigdor Feldman, said yesterday, "I feel satisfied with this precedent-setting decision, which passed a suspended sentence for the offense of interceding in a bribe and conspiracy to commit a crime. The unusual sentence was given in consideration of Rabbi Elbaz's unusual personality."

Lavi also said it had not been decided whether to appeal to the High Court.

Shas chairman Minister Eli Yishai was present in the courtroom as the sentence was read. Yishai said he would be praying for Benizri's appeal before the High Court and believed in his innocence. Behind closed doors, there has been criticism over the past month in Shas for the garbled support given to Benizri during the trial. Benizri said yesterday that he had not sought public support from Shas.

Benizri is now automatically suspended from the Knesset due to the finding of moral turpitude. However, during the first six months of suspension, an MK is entitled to a monthly salary of NIS 16,629, which is half the usual monthly salary. After the initial six months and until the end of the suspension, a suspended MK is entitled to the monthly salary of NIS 33,259. During the period of suspension, the MK may not use his or her official vehicle or parliamentary aides, and other perks.

If the finding of moral turpitude remains even after the appeal, Benizri will receive a one-time severance payment of NIS 200,000. He is also entitled to a pension amounting to NIS 13,303 per month. However, if the finding of moral turpitude is not reversed, the Knesset will not pay NIS 10,400 per month in telephone expenses and newspaper subscriptions for life, to which retiring MKs are entitled.