Ascending the witness stand one last time in dramatic fashion and staring down the court, former prime minister Ehud Olmert thundered away at Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen for several minutes on Tuesday, saying he had never taken bribes and that the Supreme Court would correct his mistaken conviction for bribery.
“I never asked for or got a bribe, neither indirectly nor directly, not for me, not for people close [to me], not for anyone in the family,” Olmert said.
“I respect this place, all judges in Israel, and you, so I decided to keep my remarks very short and will not let out the cry that I wanted to make,” he continued. “I never took a bribe. This is the truth, and there is no other.”
Olmert added that the guilty verdict against him was “completely wrong,” that he would appeal to the Supreme Court, and that he believed it would “see the full picture” and exonerate him.
The demonstration was uniquely prime minister-style and almost like a press conference, as defendants typically either express remorse or disagree with the court in a low-key manner, and never return to the witness stand to dress down the court within the courtroom (though some do so outside the court at actual press conferences).
Rozen, a dominating presence for most of the proceedings, sat and listened intently and was uncharacteristically speechless in response.
At the end of the day, he set Olmert’s and most defendants’ sentencing for May 13.
Prior to Olmert’s statement, the members of his defense team made their arguments to get their client a lighter sentence than the minimum of six years in prison that the State Attorney’s Office is asking the court to give him.
Speaking on the second day of sentencing arguments for Olmert, top defense lawyer Eli Zohar asked the court to “depart” from the “standard” spectrum of punishment for bribery convictions.
Olmert should not get any jail time at all, his attorney said. The maximum sentence he could be given, in the most extreme interpretation of court precedents, would be no more than 18 months, he added.
Zohar declared that his client intended to “fight on to the end.”
He said Olmert had been “punished in the media and before the public insufferably according to all notions of what could be expected in Israel and around the world.” He added that “what has happened in recent weeks, with [Olmert’s former longtime bureau chief Shula] Zaken, has been an insufferable media festival” that “has harmed this legal process.”
The attorney was referring to fellow defendant Zaken’s vacillating for weeks over whether to pursue a plea bargain with the state. The state initially rejected her offer to testify against Olmert, only to cut a deal with her days later when she produced tapes, allegedly of Olmert trying to convince her not to cooperate with the state.
Zaken will be sentenced on May 14, after the other defendants are sentenced, to ensure her plea bargain is kept as a separate process.
The defense lawyer did not linger on Olmert’s contributions to the state, but said that “35 years of public service” must “be given some weight” in reducing any punishment.
If the state had called on Rozen to send a message to the public with harsh sentences, Zohar called on the court to be lenient to send a message to the media and the public that “publicity assassinations” would not be tolerated and that “public inquisitions” would not decide defendants’ fates, but just and moderate judges.
In a heated exchange, Zohar asked the judge to ignore the large size of the bribes that Olmert is accused of being involved with ($500,000 for his brother Yossi) for purposes of punishment. Rozen responded almost angrily, asking, “What are you saying, that NIS 20,000 is the same as NIS 500,000?” Rather, said Rozen, “of course the amount of the bribe and scope of the crime impact the severity of the punishment.”
In another back-and-forth, as Zohar tried to separate out Olmert’s conviction from the massiveness of the bribery scheme engulfing the 16 defendants, the court rebuked him, saying that “it is all the same story” and that Olmert was part of the larger scheme.
The State Attorney’s Office on Monday asked that Olmert be given a minimum of six years and a maximum of 11 years in prison for his bribery conviction, in the first of multiple days of sentencing hearings.
The sentencing’s time frame stems from two counts of bribery: one in which the state asked for five to seven years, relating to the $500,000 given to Olmert’s brother at his request; and another in which the state asked for two to four years, relating to the NIS 60,000 paid toward Olmert’s election debts.
The state further requested that Olmert, who was convicted on March 31, be fined NIS 1,347,000.
Zohar asked the court to drop the fine, since Olmert had not received any bribes for himself, but Rozen appeared to disregard that distinction.
Also on Tuesday, the court pressed the state to agree to giving former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski a mere suspended sentence with no jail time.
Rozen implied that Lupolianski’s poor health and the fact that he had not received any of the bribes personally, but that all bribes had been paid to the Yad Sarah charity at his request, would otherwise lead to a lenient sentence for him.
It was not the first time Rozen had made the suggestion, but as the state requested six years in prison and Lupolianski has wanted an acquittal, there may be no plea bargain.
Regarding former Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner, his lawyer said that unlike the state, which said the punishments “should reverberate and deter,” he believed punishments “should do justice.”
The state had asked to give Dankner seven years in prison, while his lawyer said he should receive no more than threeand- a-half years and hoped for mere community service.