The Supreme Court on Wednesday partially accepted a petition filed by two top aides of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aiming to block police search warrants for their cellphones.
Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich and Ofer Golan, the party’s campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, are under investigation for allegedly harassing a state’s witness in a corruption case implicating the prime minister.
They have argued that search warrants for their phones were based on information obtained during previous, allegedly illegal searches, invalidating the warrants.
Judge Yosef Elron ruled the question of upholding the search warrants should be returned to the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, which had previously approved limited police searches of the phones. He instructed the court to consider if the requests for warrants were based on information that was obtained through the previous searches. If police are using the material from those searches to justify the warrants, they should be cancelled, he ruled.
“If it is found that the information on which the warrants were requested was obtained by a previous search that was illegally carried out on the devices, the warrants will be cancelled,” Elron said.
The court found that during a police investigation of Urich and Golan their phones were searched without investigators having approval, or explaining to the suspects that they had the right to refuse the search.
It was only later that investigators applied for a formal search warrant to conduct a more thorough search.
Elron said he “can’t ignore the fact that the investigators deviated from police procedures time after time” and that the previous searches earlier this year were “a serous illegal violation of the petitioners’ privacy.”
However, the court allowed that even though the initial search was carried out illegally, if there is a serious enough justification, a search warrant should still be approved.
Likud spokesman Urich called the ruling “a dramatic change in the rights of those who are under investigation.”
The decision will “put an end to illegal searches that police carry out,” he tweeted.
In October, the Tel Aviv Magistrate Court approved limited police searches of the phones, but ordered them conducted under close judicial supervision. In his ruling, Judge Ala Masarwa said there were significant flaws in police’s handling of the case, namely the search and seizure of the phones without court approval.
Urich and Golan have filed complaints with the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department over the police’s searching of their phones, after they were called in for questioning in the intimidation probe.
Along with two other Likud officials, Golan and Urich are suspected of harassing Shlomo Filber, a former confidant of Netanyahu who led Likud’s campaign in the 2015 elections.
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 then director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister during part of the period under scrutiny by prosecutors. He was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.
The Likud officials are suspected of sending a van to Filber’s home with loudspeakers, blasting allegations he lied about the case.
The search of the phones has been strongly criticized by Likud politicians and Netanyahu, who called it “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”
Senior Likud members have recently stepped up their accusations that Netanyahu is being unfairly pursued by the legal system in a trio of criminal cases against him. 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.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims to be the victim of a witch hunt involving the opposition, the media, the police and state prosecutors.