Prosecution asks court to deny Netanyahu’s request to skip opening of his trial

Prosecution asks court to deny Netanyahu’s request to skip opening of his trial

Jerusalem District Court set to rule on whether premier must be present at Sunday hearing; State Prosecutor’s Office rebuffs PM’s claim that hearing is merely ‘technical’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The State Prosecutor’s Office said Tuesday that it was opposed to granting  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request that he be allowed to skip the opening hearing of his corruption trial next week.

Netanyahu’s lawyers on Monday asked for the premier to be excused from the Jerusalem District Court session, scheduled for Sunday, claiming it was a “technical hearing” and his presence was unnecessary and would cost a “fortune” in security arrangements.

Defendants are generally required to attend the opening hearing of their trials, even though it consists mainly of the indictment being read out in full. Netanyahu’s next hearing is only expected to be held in several months.

In its response to the request, the State Prosecutor’s Office said Netanyahu’s presence at the hearing was far from technical and was required to send a public message of “justice and public trust in the fairness and equality of criminal proceedings for all defendants.”

Quoting the relevant law, the prosecution said it required the indictment to be read out before the defendant, who must confirm he or she heard and understood its full terms.

“The reasons presented are not enough to justify the extreme result of a defendant being absent from the opening of their trial,” it said.

The final decision will be made by the court.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset after the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, May 17, 2020. (GPO)

The prime minister faces bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in one case, and fraud and breach of trust in two other cases.

He is accused of engaging in illegal activities to manipulate his media coverage to look better and of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors.

The other defendants in the bribery case are Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, and his wife, Iris Elovitch. Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes is also a defendant in another case.

Netanyahu’s trial was originally scheduled for March 17, but was pushed off by two months after Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a “state of emergency” in the court system in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Jerusalem District Court last week ruled that the opening hearing of Netanyahu’s trial would not be broadcast live to the public, rejecting a request by media outlets. The court also noted that those present in the courtroom would be required to wear face masks and keep a distance of at least two meters from each other. Only one attorney for the state will be permitted to attend, and one defense counsel for each of the defendants named in the cases.

The Jerusalem District Court, January 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu on Sunday swore in his new unity government, ending a 508-day political crisis during which Israel was ruled by a transitional government and held three consecutive elections.

Already in power for over a decade, Netanyahu will now likely be prime minister for at least another 18 months, as he fights the corruption charges. He forged a power-sharing coalition with rival-turned-partner Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and other allies who have agreed to join them. Gantz is set to become prime minister on November 17, 2021.

Earlier this month, the High Court of Justice shot down a petition to disqualify the Likud leader over his indictment. It also declined to strike down legislative changes made as part of the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing agreement, while admitting that there were “significant difficulties” and hinting that future challenges may still be considered.

In Case 4000, the most serious case faced by Netanyahu, he is accused of pushing regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister from 2015 to 2017 that benefited Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage by the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is alleged to have received tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from wealth benefactors.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing with Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from the Yedioth newspaper.

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 filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped a bid for Knesset immunity.

Netanyahu denies the charges and claims, without providing evidence, that he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

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