'Try and act surprised.' 'I’m practicing my surprised face'

Texts show judge, investigator in Bezeq case apparently coordinated rulings

Pair removed from Case 4000 after chat shows discussion of remand periods for suspects prior to hearings; lawyers to argue for all of the suspects’ release Monday morning

Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz. (Judiciary of Israel)
Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz. (Judiciary of Israel)

A judge in the Bezeq corruption probe and an investigator in the case discussed and coordinated remand periods for suspects in text messages prior to the hearings, a WhatsApp chat obtained by Channel 10 news has shown.

In the chat, aired Sunday, Israel Securities Authority investigator Eran Shacham-Shavit tells Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz that authorities intend to release some of the suspects in the probe, while holding others for a few more days.

“Try and act surprised,” he writes.

“I’m practicing my surprised face,” she responds.

In another chat, Shacham-Shavit writes that, on the matter of suspects “Stella (Handler) and Iris (Elovitch), we will ask for a few more days tomorrow.

“They will request three days, but you can definitely, definitely give two days,” he says.

Israel Securities Authority investigator Eran Shacham-Shavit (YouTube screenshot)

“You’re continuing to reveal everything to me and I will have to act really, really surprised,” the judge responds.

The conversation took place before the suspects’ remand hearings, where they are ostensibly given an opportunity to make their case before the judge decides their standing.

Stella Handler, CEO of the Bezeq telecom giant, appears in the Tel Aviv District Court on February 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

An initial court response appeared to defend the chat, saying, “The use of the term ‘coordination’ is inappropriate. The judge is familiar with the case from its start. The court’s decision is at any rate made in the courtroom, after both sides are heard, in accordance with the investigation materials and needs, and these alone.”

However, following publication of the chat, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked ordered an inquiry into Poznansky-Katz’s behavior.

Poznansky-Katz was removed from planned hearings in the case on Monday, with the president of the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court saying the judge had been put on immediate leave and would not take part in any further court deliberations until an inquiry was completed.

Shacham-Shavit was removed from the case and placed on leave as well, with the Israel Securities Authority vowing to investigate his actions.

The Justice Department said in a statement that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan viewed the incident as “contravening the basic principles required of prosecution officials.”

Case 4000 involves suspicions that the controlling shareholder of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant positive coverage to Benjamin Netanyahu and his family, in exchange for the prime minister advancing regulations benefiting Elovitch.

Shaul Elovitch arrives for extension of his remand in case 4000 at the Magistrate’s Court in Tel Aviv, February 22, 2018. (Flash90)

Following publication of the Channel 10 report, lawyers for all of the suspects in the case said they would file for early release, and a hearing was set for Monday morning.

The political response to the revelation of the chats was swift and furious.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called for the judge to be suspended immediately. “We must not allow the public to lose trust in the court system,” he tweeted.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called the incident “appalling” and said it showed “contempt of court and contempt toward the public.”

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay said “a judge who coordinates arrests with a prosecutor has no place in court,” but added it did nothing to mitigate suspicions against Netanyahu, which “no conduct by a judge — disgraceful as it may be — can take away.”

Zionist Union chairman Yoel Hasson was also aghast. “Public confidence in the judicial system is the holiest of holies,” he tweeted. “The right to due process for every suspect is basic. Both the investigator and the judge should be terminated from their positions this very evening.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) said, “If it becomes clear that civilians were sent to detainment in a contaminated process in which decisions were made prior to a hearing, this is one of the most serious criminal offenses there are.”

MK Bezalel Smotritch of the Jewish Home party also called for the pair’s suspension, and demanded that all suspects in Case 4000 be freed immediately. “We mustn’t allow even the smallest chance that people’s freedom was taken away through improper process,” he said.

Earlier Sunday, a source familiar with the investigations told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu would likely be questioned in the case on Friday, “possibly” under caution as a suspect.

The Case 4000 investigation has gathered steam in the past week, following the arrest of a number of high-profile aides to Netanyahu and executives at Bezeq.

Shlomo Filber, the suspended director-general of the Communications Ministry and a longtime Netanyahu confidant, signed a deal on Tuesday to turn state’s witness and possibly incriminate the prime minister in the affair. Filber had his remand extended on Wednesday by 15 days, and is to stay at a facility in an undisclosed location for the duration of that time, while police continue to question him.

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