Netanyahu’s trial delayed by over 2 months as court activity limited over virus
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Netanyahu’s trial delayed by over 2 months as court activity limited over virus

As country slows down with introduction of fresh far-reaching rules in attempt to stop pandemic, May 24 date announced just two days before scheduled hearing

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

The opening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial in three corruption cases has been pushed off by more than two months due to new restrictions on Israel’s courts as part of the new measures to combat the coronavirus, the Jerusalem District Court announced Sunday morning.

The move comes just two days before the scheduled March 17 hearing, which according to the Courts Administration of Israel has now been postponed until May 24.

“In light of developments regarding the spread of the coronavirus, and taking into account the latest guidelines given and the declaration of a state of emergency in the courts, we have decided to cancel the scheduled hearing,” the three judges presiding over the case wrote in their announcement.

The prime minister faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.

On Saturday night, Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a 24-hour “state of emergency” in Israel’s court system, “as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

The decision means that courts can only sit for urgent hearings on arrest and remand orders, administrative detention orders, offenses under legislation “relating to the special emergency” and certain interim relief in civil matters.

A statement from Ohana’s office said the decision was made based on Health Ministry recommendations and that “there is a real fear of serious harm to public health” if the court system continued as normal.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at the Knesset on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the emergency measures will initially only be in place for 24 hours, the statement from the justice minister’s office said that Ohana would assess the situation throughout Sunday to decide “on how to move forward.”

Ohana, a Likud MK and one of Netanyahu’s most vocal loyalists who was appointed to the post by Netanyahu last June in an acting capacity to replace Ayelet Shaked, has become a frequent critic of the courts and the criminal cases against the prime minister.

Ohana’s announcement came after Netanyahu and government officials announced a shutdown of all leisure businesses and activities throughout the country, and new restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people in the same place, in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

The number of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, rose to 200 Sunday morning. The Health Ministry said two of the sick remained in serious condition, with 11 in moderate condition and the rest suffering light symptoms only.

Meanwhile, nearly 40,000 Israelis were in home quarantine for fear of exposure to the virus, including nearly 1,000 doctors, more than 600 nurses, 170 paramedics, and 80 pharmacists, according to Health Ministry figures. Health officials have conducted over 6,800 coronavirus tests nationwide so far, according to the ministry.

A man being tested for fever as he arrives for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals were barred from entering the country as of March 12, unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Netanyahu in November became Israel’s first sitting prime minister with charges against him, when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict him. The charges were only filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped a bid for Knesset immunity.

Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

Last week, the Jerusalem District Court rejected Netanyahu’s request to delay the start of the corruption trial.

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