The trial of a former Israeli minister accused of spying for Iran began behind closed doors in Jerusalem Thursday morning, with the remote possibility of a death penalty sentence hanging over the most high-profile espionage case in Israeli history.
Gonen Segev, a former energy and infrastructure minister who left Israel after serving time for drug smuggling over a decade ago, appeared at the Jerusalem District Court, a day after the state prosecution released the full, although heavily redacted, indictment against him.
The trial is being held behind closed doors for security reasons. The indictment, part of which has not been made public, reportedly includes 50 clauses relating to espionage on behalf of Iran and assisting Iran in its war against Israel.
Although unlikely, Segev could potentially face the death penalty for a series of charges amounting to treason against the state. Courts can sentence those convicted of treason to death, but capital punishment has only ever been meted out to Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.
Segev was indicted in a Jerusalem court last month and accused of “aggravated espionage” — a more severe form of the crime of espionage — as well as assisting the enemy in wartime, attempted aggravated espionage and dozens of counts of attempting to provide information to the enemy, according to the charge sheet released Wednesday.
Segev, through his attorneys, has denied that he worked against the interests of Israel, saying that he was trying to act as a double agent against Iran in the hope of returning to the Jewish state as a hero.
Following requests from the media, the state prosecutor’s office released the charge sheet against Segev Wednesday, but with much of the information about his alleged crimes removed from the document as many details of the case remained under a gag order.
Segev, who was living in Nigeria, allegedly met with Iranian intelligence officials repeatedly over the past six years, including twice in Tehran, having traveled to the Islamic Republic on a non-Israeli passport, according to the Shin Bet security service.
He was arrested in Equatorial Guinea in May and swiftly extradited to Israel. News of Segev’s arrest and indictment was announced by the Shin Bet on June 18.
In addition to allegedly supplying the Iranians with information, the prosecution also said Segev “carried out various missions when he was asked.”
The details of those “missions” were redacted.
In the indictment, the prosecution also said the former minister acted “with the intention of damaging the security of the state.”
In its original statement upon his arrest, the Shin Bet said Segev “gave his operators information about [Israel’s] energy sector, about security locations in Israel, and about buildings and officials in diplomatic and security bodies, and more.”
The newly released indictment makes similar claims, saying he provided details about military bases and other security installations, along with the names of defense officials and information he gleaned as minister of energy and infrastructure.
“Segev even visited Iran twice to meet with his handlers in full knowledge that they were Iranian intelligence operatives,” the security service said.
The Shin Bet said Segev met with his Iranian handlers in hotels and safe houses around the world and used a special encrypted device to send them messages in secret.
He was accused of making contact with Israeli figures in security, defense and diplomacy in order to mine them for information to send to Iran.
According to the Shin Bet, Segev also tried to make direct connections between his Israeli contacts and Iranian handlers, presenting the intelligence officers as businesspeople.
Segev was initially held in a Shin Bet facility, where he was kept in solitary confinement, but he was later moved to a regular jail.
His arrest sent shockwaves through Israel, with Gonen regarded as the most high-ranking official alleged to have given information to the country’s archenemy. The allegations opened a rare window into the covert espionage war taking place between Tehran and Jerusalem.
Having sat in government meetings and headed ministries dealing with energy and national infrastructure, Segev would have had access to sensitive material during his time as a politician.
However, defense analysts noted that this was over 20 years ago, meaning much of the information is likely no longer relevant. Israelis in Nigeria said Segev, a doctor, provided medical care to Israelis in Abuja, including diplomats.
Given that material relating to the case was not released in full, it was not clear what damage he may have caused to Israeli security.
The former politician had been living abroad since his release from prison after he was found guilty of drug smuggling in 2007.
Segev was born in Israel in 1956. He was a captain in the IDF and went on to study medicine at Ben Gurion University in the Negev and became a pediatrician.
He was elected to the Knesset in 1992, at the age of 35, as part of Raful Eitan’s now defunct Tzomet party.
He famously split that party in 1994 and set up the short-lived Yiud faction along with two other Tzomet MKs.
He joined Yitzhak Rabin’s governing coalition in January 1995 and headed the Energy and Infrastructure Ministry (now known as the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources) until June 1996. His vote was critical in passing the Oslo II Accord in the Knesset in October 1995. He quit politics after losing his seat in the 1996 elections.
Segev then became a businessman, and was arrested in 2004 for attempting to smuggle 32,000 ecstasy (MDMA) tablets from the Netherlands into Israel. He also illegally extended his diplomatic license and committed several offenses involving use of credit cards.
The former minister was convicted in 2005 of drug smuggling, forgery and fraud. He received a five-year prison sentence as well as a $27,500 fine. He was released from prison in 2007 after a third of his sentence was cut due to satisfactory behavior in jail.
However, Segev could not go back to working as a doctor since his medical license was stripped from him shortly before his release. Segev appealed this decision to the Jerusalem District Court, but was rejected.
Immediately following his release, Segev left the country and has since been working as a doctor and a businessman in Nigeria.
In 2016, the Israeli Health Ministry rejected a request from Segev to reinstate his medical license in order for him to return to the country.
His attorney argued at the time that there were ministers who had committed offenses and still returned to government positions. He cited the example of current Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who has been jailed for bribery and yet returned to the very same ministerial position he held when he committed his crime.