PM aides accused of witness tampering may face upgraded charges

Ofer Golan and Jonatan Urich now suspected of witness intimidation, which carries a heavier maximum punishment; pair claims case should have been closed

(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)

Police are reportedly seeking upgraded charges against a pair of top aides for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who have been accused of hounding a state’s witness.

Ofer Golan — a Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman — and party spokesman Jonatan Urich are suspected of sending a van to blast slogans through a loudspeaker outside the home of Shlomo Filber, a former confidant of the prime minister who led the ruling Likud party’s campaign in the 2015 elections but later testified against the premier in an alleged bribery case.

The pair have thus far been suspected of harassing a witness, a criminal offense carrying a punishment of up to three years in prison.

According to Army Radio, police have upgraded the suspicion to intimidation of a witness, an offense punishable by a seven-year prison sentence. If the intimidation was carried out by means of fraud, misdirection, force, threats or offering gifts in return, the punishment could potentially reach nine years.

The technical difference between the two offenses in the Israeli law book is that while witness harassment only requires a general link between the harassment and the witness’s testimony, witness intimidation requires proof that the suspect took action with the express goal of causing a witness to refrain from testifying to police or in court, or to give false testimony.

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)

Urich and Golan on Friday asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to drop the investigation, citing a “string of illegal failures” by police and state prosecutors. They also filed a complaint against the investigation with the Jerusalem District Court over a police search of their cellphones, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

Commenting on the Army Radio report, Amit Hadad, an attorney for Urich and Golan, claimed the new step was motivated by outside considerations.

“One has to ask where the upgraded suspicion came from,” he said. “It didn’t come from the investigation. The incident remains as we saw in the video, and the cellphones haven’t yet been opened.”

Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A statement attributed to Urich and Golan by Army Radio said that “the court determined that there were flaws in the investigation. It would have been appropriate if authorities announced they were stopping the investigation in light of the court remarks, and closing the case into all those involved.”

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.

He was then director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister 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 other Likud campaign staffers are suspected of ordering a van sent to Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

Shlomo Filber, 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)

In their letter Friday to Mandelblit, Golan and Urich said any material removed from their phones was illegally obtained, and should be excluded from the evidence.

The pair filed an official complaint with the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department on Wednesday and Thursday over the phone searches, alleging that Lahav 433 investigators carried out “illegal acts” during the investigation.

On Wednesday, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court approved limited police searches of the aides’ phones but ordered them conducted under close judicial supervision.

Mandelblit had earlier asked police to address claims that investigators had overstepped their authority in searching the phones 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.

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 the end of the year whether or not 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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