Court okays police search of Netanyahu aides’ phones in witness harassment case

Tel Aviv District Court overturns lower court’s ruling, approves search of four devices; attorneys for officials say they will appeal to Supreme Court

(R-L) Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, digital adviser Topaz Luk, and Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
(R-L) Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, digital adviser Topaz Luk, and Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Tel Aviv District Court overturned a previous ruling on Friday and said police could search the cellphones of four aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who are suspected of arranging the harassment of a state witness in the cases against the premier.

Last month, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court ruled that police could carry out a limited search of the phone of Netanyahu campaign manager Ofer Golan, and could not search the phones of Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich and party officials Yossi Shalom and Yisrael Einhorn, explaining that the search warrant requests for the latter devices were based on evidence obtained through previous unauthorized reviews of the devices.

That ruling was appealed by the state, which argued that there had been sufficient evidence to justify the search at the time the warrant was requested. That appeal has now been accepted by the district court.

The fresh ruling means police can search the personal phones of all four officials.

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

The attorneys for the Likud officials, Amit Hadad and Noa Milstein, responded by saying they would take the matter to the Supreme Court.

“We will insist that the historic Supreme Court ruling regarding suspects’ rights be implemented as written,” they said in a statement.

The aides are suspected of harassing state witness Shlomo Filber, a former Likud campaign manager and longtime confidant to Netanyahu.

Explaining his decision last month, Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Ala Masarwa said he came to the conclusion “that there is an inextricable link between the illegal search results and the subsequent requests for judicial search warrants.”

In the case of Golan, though, it was possible to separate between the two, he said.

“There is no concern that the order sought in his case is intended to retroactively legalize a search that was performed illegally,” Masarwa said.

The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court had initially approved searches of all four of the aides’ phones. But the Supreme Court in December instructed the magistrate’s court to take another look at the search warrant requests and consider if they were based on information that was obtained through unauthorized searches. If police were using the material from those searches to justify the warrants, they should be canceled, the Supreme Court said.

Former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber arrives for a hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

Filber, who was allegedly harassed by Netanyahu’s aides, is a key witness in Case 4000, in which the prime minister is said 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. Filber was then director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister during part of the period under scrutiny by prosecutors.

Filber was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.

The Likud officials are suspected of sending a van to Filber’s home with loudspeakers, blasting allegations he lied about the case.

The search of the phones has been strongly criticized by Likud politicians, as well as the prime minister himself who called it “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”

In addition to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he is also accused of the latter two offenses in two other cases against him.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims to be the victim of a witch hunt involving the opposition, the media, the police and state prosecutors. The attorney general announced late last year that Netanyahu will stand trial and revealed the indictment against him.

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