PM aide claims police illegally searched his phone in witness harassment case

PM aide claims police illegally searched his phone in witness harassment case

Attorney general requests response from investigators as Netanyahu spokesperson says they looked at messages on his device unrelated to case, forwarded them to other officials

Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at a joint press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu and Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan, August 29, 2019. (Flash90)
Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at a joint press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu and Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan, August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Monday asked police to address claims that investigators had overstepped their authority in searching the phones of aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Sunday, police confirmed they had opened an investigation into senior Netanyahu campaign figures alleged to have harassed Shlomo (Momo) 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.

Police searched the phones of Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich and the party’s campaign manager, Ofer Golan, in a move that riled right-wing activists and politicians.

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.

Filber was director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed 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 others are suspected of ordering a van sent to Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem, September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mandelblit asked for the police’s response on Monday 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.

Noa Milstein, Urich’s lawyer, sent the letter, titled “Illegal infiltration of the cell phone of Yonatan Urich,” to Mandelblit earlier Monday. It claims that police 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 claims.

The letter then states 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 video of the incident being probed, a vehicle bearing slogans of the Bratslav Hasidic sect can be seen parked near Filber’s home, with a voice saying: “Momo, be a man! Come out, tell the truth. Momo Filber, what did they do to you to get you to lie against the prime minister? What did they promise you? Momo, the left is using you to topple Likud! Listen to what you yourself said before police pressured you.”

A recording of Filber is then heard, saying: “There is no crime here. Where has this even come from? Everything I promoted was within my purview as director general [of the Communications Ministry].”

According to a Monday Channel 13 report, Urich told police that the initiative was a campaign stunt rather than an authentic effort to harass Filber, and said Netanyahu was not aware of the initiative.

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,” he 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.

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

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

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.”

Netanyahu faces pending charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in Case 4000. He also faces fraud and breach of trust charges in two other cases. He denies any wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, Mandelblit’s office held a pre-indictment hearing for the premier, having previously announced his intention to charge him in all three cases.

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

Netanyahu is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo with Elovitch that continued for about four years until early 2017. The alleged understanding saw Elovitch ensure favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second-largest news site, and critical coverage of Netanyahu’s rivals, especially in the 2013 and 2015 election periods.

Mandelblit’s lengthy description of Netanyahu’s alleged illicit dealings with Elovitch took up the majority of a 57-page document released in February, in which the attorney general set out the allegations that prompted him to announce a pending criminal indictment against the prime minister.

The second case against the premier, Case 1000, involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors. Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

The third, Case 2000, revolves around accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. In this case, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery, pending a hearing.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all the cases.

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