Court approves ‘surgical’ police searches of PM’s aides’ phones

Court approves ‘surgical’ police searches of PM’s aides’ phones

Judge acknowledges serious flaws in police conduct and infringement of suspects’ rights but says there is reasonable suspicion they conspired to harass a witness

File: Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, arrives at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, arrives at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Tel Aviv Magistrate Court on Wednesday approved limited police searches of the phones of aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although the judge noted that there had been significant flaws in police’s handling of the case.

Police searched the phones of Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich and the party’s campaign manager, Ofer Golan, during the course of an investigation into allegations that senior Netanyahu campaign figures harassed Shlomo Filber, a former confidant of Netanyahu who led the ruling Likud party’s campaign in the 2015 elections before testifying against the premier in an alleged bribery case.

Filber is a key witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in telecom giant Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. He was then director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister during the period under scrutiny by prosecutors. He was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.

Urich, Golan and two other Likud campaign staffers are suspected of ordering a van sent to Filber’s home on August 29 with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich speaks at a Central Elections Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Judge Ala Masarwa in his Wednesday statement approved the searches but ordered them conducted under close judicial supervision.

“There were indeed flaws in the conduct of the investigation unit against the suspects in this case,” Masarwa said.

In his ruling, the judge listed problems in the investigation: “First, the search and seizure of phones without prior court order” was a major flaw, he wrote.

Secondly, the judge agreed with the defense’s argument that the suspects should have been informed of their right to refuse a search.

Lastly, Masarwa said that the investigators’ search of the phones had “involved an unspecified demarcation of search functions and boundaries.”

The investigator had conducted a poorly organized and “somewhat improvised” search of the phones, he wrote, while the search should have been restricted to only material relevant to the harassment case.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the annual Board of Governors’ meeting in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The judge wrote however that the investigative material led to a reasonable and strong suspicion that the suspects were involved in a conspiracy to harass a witness.

“The requested search warrants can assist in advancing the investigation and shed light on the depth of the suspects’ involvement and on the involvement of others,” he wrote.

“Even after considering the infringement on the rights of the suspects and the flaws in the investigation, I decided, after deliberating, to accept the applicants’ request for the measured search warrants that offer a ‘surgical’ and well-defined search, under close judicial supervision.”

Attorneys for the aides are expected to appeal the decision.

Urich on Wednesday filed an official complaint with the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department, alleging that the police’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit had conducted “illegal acts” during the investigation into him.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Monday asked police to address claims that investigators had overstepped their authority in searching the phones after he received a letter from a lawyer representing Urich, which was leaked to the press. The letter claimed that police investigators had looked at messages on his phone that were unrelated to the investigation of the harassment of Filber, Channel 12 news reported Monday evening.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference outside Tel Aviv, September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Noa Milstein, Urich’s lawyer, sent the letter, titled “Illegal infiltration of the cellphone of Yonatan Urich,” to Mandelblit earlier in the day. She claimed that police had asked Urich to unlock his phone to read his messages to Golan without informing Urich of his right to refuse the request.

Urich unlocked the phone and allowed the investigator to take it out of the room. When she returned, he noticed that she had looked at messages unrelated to the case, the letter claimed.

The letter then stated that Urich saw the investigator send information from the messages to a Telegram group dedicated to Case 4000. If true, it would mean that the messages had been used in the investigation of another case.

In a tweet, the prime minister called the search of his aides’ phones “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”

“We don’t live under a totalitarian regime and this is unacceptable,” Netanyahu said. “The goal is to terrorize my immediate circle and thus deny me the ability to respond to the criminal flood of leaks that is targeting me nonstop.”

In a joint statement Monday afternoon, the police and Justice Ministry said the phones were confiscated “due to clear investigative requirements.” They said that the devices would not be opened or examined without specific court warrants allowing it, and limited only to contacts specified in such warrants.

“The state will request that, if possible, the judge will be the one to locate the materials, rather than investigators,” they said.

Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting in Jerusalem, July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

They stressed that any attempt to intimidate or harass witnesses was viewed severely, and particularly in the case of a state witness. “Law enforcement authorities will show no tolerance toward actions of this type,” they said.

But “due to the obvious sensitivity, the investigation is being conducted under the observation of the most senior levels of the justice system.”

Many on the right have echoed Netanyahu’s rhetoric about the case.

His son Yair Netanyahu tweeted that Israel was now “officially a dictatorship” while Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home-National Union) claimed on Twitter that the arrests were part of a “deep state” conspiracy, and wondered aloud whether his conversations with one of the aides would be leaked to the media by police.

On Tuesday evening, Justice Minister Amir Ohana assailed state prosecutors who operate under his purview, accusing them of engaging in a blind persecution of public officials they feel threaten their standing, all while being supported by a “cult” of fawning reporters.

Like Smotrich, he appeared to invoke a so-called deep-state element within the system, saying “there is another prosecution — a prosecution within the prosecution. There are those who, alongside a small cult of court reporters, have managed to establish a perception that a war of light against darkness [is being waged].”

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