Court releases 4 suspects in Bezeq probe to house arrest

Decision still pending for Netanyahu ex-adviser Nir Hefetz and media tycoon Shaul Elovitch, who is said to have received bribes worth ‘up to NIS 1 billion’

Stella Handler (L), CEO of the Bezeq telecom company, appears in the Tel Aviv District Court on February 21, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)
Stella Handler (L), CEO of the Bezeq telecom company, appears in the Tel Aviv District Court on February 21, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on Monday released four of the seven suspects held in the the Bezeq probe, a high-profile corruption case involving confidants of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The suspects released to house arrest are Elovitch’s wife, Iris; his son, Or; Bezeq CEO Stella Handler; and Bezeq’s deputy CEO for business development, Amikam Shorer.

The case, known as Case 4000, involves suspicions that the controlling shareholder of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant positive coverage to Netanyahu and his family, in exchange for the prime minister advancing regulations benefiting Elovitch.

The court is due to rule later on whether Nir Hefetz, the premier’s former media adviser, and Elovitch will remain in custody or be released to house arrest. Suspended Communications Ministry director Shlomo Filber, who turned state witness last week, had his remand extended by 15 days last Wednesday.

Nir Hefetz, longtime aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Netanyahu family, arrives for extension of his remand in case 4000 at the Magistrate’s Court in Rishon Lezion, February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

Elovitch is suspected of giving and receiving bribes and illicit favors worth “up to a billion shekels,” prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh of the Israel Securities Authority said during the deliberation on Elovitch’s request to be released to house arrest.

Tirosh contended that Elovitch “proved with his actions that he cannot be trusted, not then and not since then” and that he should therefore be kept in custody.

She said the case is “very serious” and the suspects should be remanded because there is a substantial risk they would obstruct the investigation if freed.

Elovitch, for his part, complained to the judge of “repeated efforts to break my spirit.”

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for extension of his remand in Case 4000 , February 22, 2018. (Flash90)

“They’re trying to use this investigation to break me, to make me confess to something I never did,” he told the judge. “But even if I keel over and have a heart attack, I won’t do it, I won’t lie.”

Hefetz told court during his remand hearing that “the system has been putting immense pressure on me, like you have never seen,” also adding that police had “hoodwinked” the court by getting it to extend Hefetz’s remand twice before.

The presiding judge was Ala Masarwa, taking over for Ronit Poznansky-Katz, who has been placed on immediate leave pending an investigation into her conduct.

On Sunday, leaked text messages between a public prosecutor and Poznansky-Katz appeared to show the two coordinating remand rulings before hearings were even held.

In a WhatsApp chat obtained by Channel 10 news, Israel Securities Authority lawyer Eran Shacham-Shavit tells the judge that the prosecution would seek the release of some suspects but not others.

“Try and act surprised” in the courtroom, Shacham-Shavit writes.

“I’m practicing my surprised face,” Poznansky-Katz responds.

Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz (L) and the Israel Securities Authority’s legal adviser, Eran Shacham-Shavit (R)

In another chat, Shacham-Shavit writes that regarding the suspects “[Bezeq CEO] Stella [Handler] and Iris [Elovitch, Shaul’s wife], we will ask for a few more days tomorrow. They will request three days, but you can definitely, definitely give two days.”

“You’re continuing to reveal everything to me and I’ll have to act really, really surprised,” Poznansky-Katz responds, apparently jokingly.

The conversation took place before the suspects’ remand hearings in the so-called Case 4000, where they were ostensibly to be given an opportunity to make their case before the judge decided whether they can be released from custody and under what conditions.

On Sunday, a source familiar with the various investigations told The Times of Israel that it was “likely” investigators would summon the prime minister for questioning on Case 4000 this Friday, Purim in Jerusalem, “possibly” even under caution, which would mean that they were treating him as a suspect.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 25, 2018. (Screen capture/Ynet)

The source also said that the prime minister could be interrogated as a criminal suspect in Case 3000.

That case involves suspected corruption in the purchase of submarines and other naval vessels from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp. It has focused on suspicions that state officials were bribed to influence a decision to purchase four patrol boats and three Dolphin-class submarines costing a total of 2 billion euros, despite opposition to the deal from the Defense Ministry.

Neither the Israel Police or the Prime Minister’s Office would confirm that an interrogation on cases 3000 and 4000 had been scheduled for Friday or that Netanyahu would face questioning in either case.

AP contributed to this report.

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