Knesset to vote today on stripping MK Ghattas of immunity

House Committee approves unprecedented request from attorney-general ahead of an indictment

December 21, 2016 15:36
 Bassel Ghattas

MK Bassel Ghattas. (photo credit: KNESSET CHANNEL)

The Knesset is expected to revoke Joint List MK Basel Ghattas’s parliamentary immunity from search and arrest on Thursday, based on evidence that he smuggled cellphones and documents to prisoners convicted of terrorist offenses.

The Knesset House Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a request from Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to remove Ghattas’s parliamentary immunity. Neither Ghattas nor his fellow Joint List legislators attended the meeting.

A final vote on the matter in the plenum was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

By Wednesday evening, Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin gathered 60 of the 70 signatures he needs for the House Committee to call an impeachment hearing. The remaining 10 must come from the opposition, whose factions have thus far said they will not cooperate.

Earlier, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein explained to lawmakers in the plenum: “Stripping an MK of immunity is not a usual occurrence.

Giving freedom of action to elected officials is a cornerstone of democracy, in order to allow MKs to do their job without fear or limitation.

“Immunity is a tool of democracy, but it cannot be taken advantage of for the wrong reasons,” he added. “On this day, every honest person sitting here, regardless of [political] differences, must say: There is no place in our house of representatives for those acting against the State of Israel. That is a clear redline.”

In an unprecedented move, Mandelblit’s request came before an indictment, to allow a search and a possible arrest for the sake of an investigation. In cases where there is an indictment, immunity is revoked automatically.

Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri repeated the details found in Mandelblit’s six-page letter to the Knesset.

Ghattas visited Ketziot Prison, some 70 km. southwest of Beersheba, on December 18, where he met with Walid Daka, who is serving a life sentence for torturing and murdering 19-year-old soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984, and with Bassel Basra, who is serving a 15-year sentence for security offenses. Both men are Fatah members.

Based on intelligence information, Mandelblit authorized the visit to be filmed. The film did not record audio, in order to prevent the evidence from being considered unusable on grounds that it was unauthorized wiretapping.

Ghattas was caught on camera giving documents to Daka, which he put in his pants, and giving Basra four envelopes, in which prison guards found 12 cellphones, 16 SIM cards, two chargers and one headset.

Soon after, Mandelblit wrote, Ghattas was asked to go to the police for to be questioned; he refused. On Tuesday, Ghattas turned up for questioning, which lasted about four hours.

At first, the MK denied giving anything to the prisoners, but then was shown the videos.

Then, Ghattas said that he did not know there were cellphones and equipment in the envelopes, and that the papers he gave Daka had “political material” from the Balad party, of which the MK is a member.

Balad is one of the four parties which make up the Joint List.

Basra said he did not know Ghattas was giving him cellphones, and Daka denied that the papers he received were from Ghattas.

Mandelblit concluded that Ghattas should lose his parliamentary immunity because “there is a solid and strong basis of evidence against him of committing crimes of bringing equipment into a prison...

bringing equipment into a prison to harm national security or aid a terrorist organization...

[as well as] conspiracy to commit a crime, fraud and breach of trust. Immunity does not protect [MKs] if they commit crimes that are not connected to their public mission as an elected, representative MK.”

Nizri said that stripping Ghattas of his immunity from search and arrest does not mean he would be immediately arrested; it would open other options as well, such as house arrest.

Ghattas did not attend the House Committee hearing, nor did his lawyer, and no one there spoke against acquiescing to Mandelblit’s request, though MKs still found reasons to debate.

In response to Mandelblit’s letter, Ghattas wrote a letter of his own, stating that he had less than two hours after receiving it to prepare for the House Committee hearing. However, the Wednesday afternoon meeting was pushed off by an hour and a half, and Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon said Ghattas’s lawyer had been notified late on Tuesday night.

Ghattas added that he does not accept the attorney-general’s letter, in light of law enforcement leaking materials to the press before and after his being questioned, which he called a violation of his rights. He also refused to take part in the hearing in the House Committee, which he said would be political.

MKs in the House Committee agreed that Ghattas’s immunity needs to be revoked for the sake of the investigation, but debated whether other steps need to be taken as well.

Zionist Union faction chairwoman Merav Michaeli said her party supports the move, but that using the so-called “dismissal” or “impeachment law” would be unnecessary.

The law allows 90 MKs to vote to remove a colleague from the Knesset on the grounds of supporting terrorism and inciting to violence or racism.

Coalition lawmakers were less sure, asking about Ghattas’s status as an MK if he is arrested.

Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) explained that Ghattas’s immunity will only be revoked for matters relevant to the investigation.

“We don’t want to leave him here, that’s why we need the impeachment law,” Bitan argued.

Yinon explained that even after Ghattas’s immunity is revoked, he can come back to the Knesset and vote, though not while he is under arrest.

Ghattas would continue drawing a salary from the Knesset, unless and until he is convicted of a crime with moral turpitude.

However, the Knesset Ethics Committee can vote to suspend him, which Bitan petitioned the panel to do. A suspension could come with docking Ghattas’s salary, as he has been suspended multiple times in the past.

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