Court green-lights police searches of Netanyahu aides’ phones

Court green-lights police searches of Netanyahu aides’ phones

Ofer Golan and Jonatan Urich, accused of intimidating a state’s witness, are expected to appeal to Supreme Court

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 District Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by two close aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that sought to block a warrant allowing police to obtain the information contained on their phones.

The court green-lighted the police searches of the devices in the investigation into alleged witness tampering.

Following the ruling, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman Ofer Golan and party spokesman Jonatan Urich were expected to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Golan and Urich are suspected of harassing and intimidating a state witness. They allegedly hired a van to blast slogans through a loudspeaker outside the home of Shlomo Filber, a former Likud campaign manager and confidant of the prime minister who has testified against Netanyahu in a corruption case.

Shlomo Filber, then director general of the Communications Ministry, during a court hearing in the Supreme Court regarding the closing of the Israel Broadcasting Authorities. May 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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.

During the period under scrutiny by prosecutors Filber served as director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister. He was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.

Harassing a witness is a criminal offense that carries a punishment of up to three years in prison. According to Army Radio, police have sought to upgrade that initial suspicion to intimidation of a witness, an offense punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison.

Urich and Golan have claimed that investigators overstepped police authority and trampled their rights when they searched their phones during questioning last week, without notifying them of their right to refuse the questioning. They have also claimed police looked at information that was unrelated to the suspicions against them but which was thought to be useful to the investigations into Netanyahu.

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)

Last Friday, Urich and Golan asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to drop the investigation against them, citing what they called a “string of illegal failures” by police and state prosecutors, and said any material gleaned from their phones was illegally obtained and should be excluded from the evidence against them.

They also filed complaints against the investigation with the Jerusalem District Court and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department.

But the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court approved limited police searches of the aides’ phones, though it ordered them conducted under close judicial supervision.

In their appeal request to the higher district court, they wrote, “If wrongful actions by law enforcement authorities become known to the court in the early stages of the investigation, it is the court’s duty to stop them at that stage.”

The appeal claimed police used their questioning in the Filber harassment case as a pretext for obtaining information without a search warrant relevant to Case 4000.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 27, 2019. (GALI TIBBON / AFP)

The request also notes that both Urich and Golan are in regular contact with the prime minister, members of Knesset, cabinet ministers and journalists, as well as Netanyahu’s attorneys, a fact that grants a great deal of the communications saved on their phones various kinds of legal protections, including parliamentary immunity, attorney-client privilege and journalistic confidentiality.

In addition to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he is also suspected of the latter two offenses in two other cases against him. Mandelblit is expected to decide by early next week whether to press charges against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police, and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.

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