The Jerusalem District Court on Sunday sentenced Knesset Member Shlomo Benizri (Shas) to an 18-month prison term after finding him guilty him on bribery charges. The court also ruled that Benizri's acts carry moral turpitude.
Benizri's sentence was relatively light, after the State Prosecutor's Office requested that he be sentenced to seven years in prison and be ordered to pay a hefty fine.
In addition to the 18 months in prison, Benizri also received an eight-month suspended sentence and was ordered to pay a fine of NIS 80,000 (about $23,000).
Recent legislation translates this clause into an automatic suspension from the Knesset. But later in the day Benizri's defense attorney challenged the ruling, saying that State Prosecutors rushed to deliver what he called "their own interpretation" of the legal proceedings to the media.
Judge Yaakov Tzaban ruled that "the offenses committed by Benizri are not accidental and have spread over several years, committed by a person who served in a high, influential post, which requires incorruptibility and unbiased reasoning.
"Bribery and breach of trust offenses cause those who commit them to work for the giver. Such damage caused to the public points to moral turpitude by the person who committed it."
'I have faith in my complete innocence'
"The State Prosecutor's Office fought me all the way. They didn’t even allow a fair trial," Benizri said Sunday afternoon, after receiving the court sentence. "I have faith in my complete innocence."
Speaking to reporters following the sentence hearing, Benizri slammed the State Prosecutor's Office, "As you may probably remember, some woman, I don’t even wish to mention her by name, from the State Prosecutor's Office, said one month ago that this is the biggest bribery trial since the State's inception… According to the verdict, I did not take one shekel into my pocket, one shekel. Even the judge said so. Even money taken as a loan was returned by me. I returned a loan even before the investigation was launched.
Benizri at court (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
"I have been persecuted for no fault of mine for eight years. Throughout the entire trial I have cried out that I'm innocent. I was attacked with unfounded allegations that I was bought an apartment, that I received $200,000 and a monthly salary of some tens of thousands of dollars."
Benizri was convicted by the Jerusalem District Court at the beginning of the month on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, committed during his tenure as labor and welfare minister. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud and obstruction of justice.
After the sentence was delivered, Shas chairman Minister Eli Yishai said, "Last night I told him I felt the need to come and be with him during these hours along with my friends. The truth is he preferred I wouldn’t come, but I anyway decided to come, because we must be with him at such times."
MK's accomplice also convicted
Two years ago, Benizri was indicted for passing on advance information to building contractor Moshe Sela which included details on the quota of foreign laborers expected to arrive in Israel.
The prosecution said that in return for this information the Shas member had received perks worth millions of shekels, including large sums of money, expensive furniture, cleaning services, electrical appliances and help in expanding his apartment.
Benizri's spiritual and political patron, Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, was convicted of facilitating and accepting bribes and conspiracy to commit fraud. The court sentenced him to a suspended sentence of eight months and a $34,000 fine to.
Last week, Benizri was rushed to the Bikur Holim hospital in Jerusalem after taking ill. "All these pressures surrounding him apparently had an effect on him," Benizri's aide Yoram Malka said. "He did not agree with the verdict and it caused him great grief."