Who’s afraid of Aryeh Deri?

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Who's afraid of Aryeh Deri?

 

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 Jul. 12, 2002

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The Prisons Service Parole Board's decision Wednesday to release former Shas leader Aryeh Deri from prison next Monday contained a curious condition. In paroling Deri after he completed two thirds of his three-year sentence for accepting $60,000 in bribes, the board stipulated, "Due to the special circumstances of [Deri's] case, including his public standing and the impact of his behavior and expressions on his followers, the board believes that it must be strict with him during his parole. As a paroled prisoner, he is prohibited from involvement in political activities whose character involves criticism and is liable to harm the governing system."

Deri's supporters greeted this bizarre condition with a shrug of their shoulders. So much of the state's prosecution of the most popular grassroots leader in Israel's history has been beyond the pale of rational treatment of suspects and even convicts, they claim, that this new dictate is simply par for the course.

Since allegations against him first arose in 1990, Aryeh Deri has maintained his innocence. In November 2000, two months after he began serving his prison sentence, Deri's attorneys submitted a request for a retrial to the Supreme Court along with a request that the state's star witness against him – Ya'acov Shmuelevitch – be investigated on suspicion of perjury at Deri's trial. Both of these requests are still pending before the court.

As a citizen in a free country, Deri has the right to freedom of speech. As a man who claims that he was unjustly convicted, Deri should reasonably use all tools at his disposal, including "criticism" of the judicial process that led to what he maintains was a false conviction to try to prove his innocence.

Given Deri's "public standing," it is perfectly reasonable that he should wish to do everything in his power not simply to clear his name in the court of law, but also to do so in the court of public opinion.

And yet, this natural and altogether reasonable inclination and legal right is what the parole board unabashedly demands he not exercise.

All of this could simply be dismissed as just another "one of those things," were it not for the fact that Deri's attorneys have provided ostensibly convincing evidence that the state prosecutors in his trial railroaded their client.

Deri's attorneys' case revolves around the credibility of the testimony provided by Shmuelevitch, which the Jerusalem district court claimed was "rock solid," and was crucial for his conviction.

In the late 1980s, the period during which Deri, as director-general of the Ministry of the Interior, was convicted of receiving bribes from the Jerusalem Lev Banim Yeshiva, Shmuelevitch worked as Lev Banim's bookkeeper. Since all the individuals accused of paying Deri bribes denied the charges, Shmuelevitch's testimony was absolutely vital to the state prosecutors' case.

Unfortunately for the prosecutors, Shmuelevitch was arrested in Zurich in July 1994 on fraud charges. According to Deri's attorneys, and as has been published by investigative journalist Yoav Yitzhak, then state's attorney (and presently Supreme Court Justice) Dorit Beinish and chief prosecutor Yehoshua Resnick flew to Zurich to meet with Swiss prosecutors about having Shmuelevitch released to testify against Deri in Israel. Both Beinish and Resnick claimed that his testimony was "central" to their case.

Resnick and Beinish's protestations to the Swiss were sufficient to get Shmuelevitch released from jail to testify in Deri's trial. According to Yitzhak's exhaustive research, at the trial, Shmuelevitch (and, apparently Resnick and Beinish) hid what they knew about the charges being brought against the witness in Switzerland from the Israeli courts. Yitzhak's findings were backed up by Ma'ariv newspaper editor Amnon Dankner and investigative journalist/lawyer Ben Dror Yemini.

On May 22, 1995, in response to Resnick's gentle query, Shmuelevitch told the court, "I was arrested on July 20, 1994. The arrest was due to suspicion of attempted fraud. It related to two deals my company acted as an agent for These suspicions were cleared, there remained against me a [lesser] suspicion of a type of negligence in my business and the other count was working without a permit." During the trial, Deri's attorney attempted to get Shmuelevitch to admit that the suspicions for which he was held in Switzerland were more serious than he claimed and had not been dismissed. Shmuelevitch testified that this allegation was "a complete lie."

The judges at Deri's trial reprimanded his defense attorney for daring to cast aspersions on Shmuelevitch's credibility. In their decision, judges Ya'acov Tzemah, Musia Arad, and Miriam Naor attacked Deri's lawyers for accusing Shmuelevitch "of false allegations claiming that he was under suspicion for fraudulent activities worth tens of millions of dollars."

The documents that Deri's attorneys submitted to the Supreme Court with their request for a retrial and a criminal investigation against Shmuelevitch are Swiss court documents. These documents reportedly prove that Shmuelevitch was in fact indicted by the Swiss judicial authorities prior to his testimony against Deri based on his own admissions during his period of arrest in Zurich. The documents are further said to show that when served with his indictment, Shmuelevitch pleaded no contest and was subsequently convicted of fraud charges and sentenced to time served and permanent expulsion from Switzerland. Neither the Jerusalem District Court which convicted Deri, nor the Supreme Court which upheld most of the guilty verdict, was informed of Shmuelevitch's indictment or conviction.

Responding the Supreme Court's request for a reaction to Deri's petitions, Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein called upon none other than attorney Yehoshua Resnick, Deri's chief prosecutor, to review the perjury allegations (which of course, also likely implicate Resnick in hiding pertinent information from the court). Not surprisingly, Resnick claimed that the charges against his star witness were groundless.

Moreover, to Deri's attorneys' request to receive the minutes of Beinish's and Resnick's meetings with Swiss prosecutors, Swiss authorities responded that they could only provide such information if requested to do so by the State Attorney's Office. That is, the only way to find out what Beinish and Resnick knew about the Swiss judicial proceedings against Shmuelevitch is if their own colleagues request that this information be coughed up by the Swiss.

Again, not surprisingly, the State Attorney's Office has yet to submit such a request to the Swiss.

All of this reeks of a cover-up. The parole board's insistence that Deri not engage in criticism during his period of parole only strengthens the impression, expressed angrily by Deri's supporters, of a government conspiracy to criminalize their leader. These allegations, and the deep-seated belief held by hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens that Israel's law-enforcement arms and elite media outlets are out to get them manifests a long-term threat to the stability of Israeli society and political system. The attorney-general's stubborn refusal to seriously respond to Deri's allegations against Shmuelevitch only exacerbates the situation.

For Deri's supporters, the entire affair is quite simple. They contend that the media, bureaucratic, and political establishments in Israel targeted Deri for political destruction, because he sought to raise the stature of the Sephardi under
class to the rank of first-class citizens. For his supporters, Deri's conviction, imprisonment and now anti-democratic parole terms are all perceived as further proof of the rot and corruption of Israel's political and social elites. Given the legal establishment's insistence on behaving as if all means justified the end of convicting Deri and now of maintaining his conviction, the perception of rot and corruption is palpable even to those who do not count themselves among Deri's supporters.

Some would argue that Israel has enough problems to deal with without Deri and therefore the matter should just be allowed to drop. But this cannot be right. The foundations of Israeli political order, like those of any democracy, rest on the belief of its citizenry that all are equal before the law and that allegations of wrongdoing, by whomever, will be conscientiously investigated by law-enforcement agencies.

All involved in the case against Deri, from media elites to police investigators to prosecutors, wardens, and judges have made much of the case's "special circumstances" given Deri's massive support base. Deri, it is claimed, must be held to a higher level of scrutiny than regular private citizens because of his high public profile. In a democracy, where all are considered equal under the law, this claim is at best debatable. But if we accept it as grounds for argument, then it should be equally true that Deri's prosecutors should also be held to a higher than normal degree of public scrutiny and judicial oversight than prosecutors of "regular" defendants.

One thing is clear, if Israel's audacious judicial authorities continue to refuse to conscientiously investigate Deri's allegations against Shmuelevitch, and if Israeli political and media elites allow them to get away with it, the rifts in Israeli society between the haves and have-nots will continue to grow as an ever increasing number of citizens loses faith in the organs of Israeli law and democracy.

 

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