Witness in Hirchson Trial Does Dramatic About-face, Gets 15 Months Behind Bars

A lead witness in the trial of Abraham Hirchson, who is suspected of fraudulent activity, dramatically retracted a previous admission in court yesterday - just hours after agreeing to testify against the former finance minister in return for a light sentence.

As part of a plea bargain, the Tel Aviv District Court yesterday sentenced Yitzhak Russo, the former National Workers Organization director general, to 15 months in jail, two years' suspended sentence and a fine of NIS 300,000, for stealing NIS 300,000 and lending Hirchson NIS 500,000. However, when he took the stand later yesterday to testify against Hirchson, he denied giving money to assist the politician's 2002 Likud Party primary election campaign, as he had previously admitted in his deal with the State Prosecution.

"I will deny for the rest of my life any statement that attempts to say that I knew of a loan [to Hirchson]," Russo said. "This is a lie. I'm not taking part in any of this rubbish."

"People who make plea bargains sometimes reach a situation where they are willing to admit to inaccurate things - maybe you were in that situation, too?" Ya'akov Weinroth, Russo's lawyer, asked him.

Judge Bracha Ophir-Tom interrupted the proceedings and asked Weinroth for clarifications concerning his client's version of events.

"Now you're saying that the plea bargain is null and void? That the court was deceived?" Ophir-Tom asked. "Mr. Weinroth, how do I respond to this? I have been misled and have convicted a man of an offense that he now denies."

Weinroth responded by saying that his client deserved "every legal defense allowed by law."

State Prosecutor Eli Schwartz responded by saying he would examine the legal consequences of Russo's retraction.

"To go and divest a plea bargain of its content is rather extreme," Judge Ophir-Tom warned.