Police arrested Joint List MK Basel Ghattas hours after he was officially stripped of his parliamentary immunity Thursday, as an investigation continued following documentation of him smuggling cell phones, SIM cards and documents to two prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses.
Ghattas was brought in to the police for questioning, and was arrested two hours later on suspicion of conspiracy, fraud and breach of trust and offenses under the Prison Service Ordinance, meaning that he brought prohibited or dangerous items into a prison. The MK will be brought before the Rishon Lezion Magistrates Court on Friday morning for an extension of his remand.
Earlier Thursday, Ghattas gave up on his immunity from search and arrest, ahead of a planned plenum vote on the matter.
Once an MK gives up his or her immunity, the Knesset House Committee needs to vote to approve it – as it did unanimously Wednesday – and the Knesset Speaker only needs to announce the revocation – as he did in the plenum Thursday.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein made the necessary announcement, adding that “it’s obvious that immunity is an important tool to do work in a democratic country. At the same time, I am satisfied by the unanimous decision made yesterday. We cannot allow criminal activities.”
Edelstein also expressed disappointment that other Joint List MKs did not speak out against Ghattas: “The voice representing the Arab public is missing. I expect to hear their representatives and their voice has not been heard. I urge my colleagues, grab a keyboard or a microphone and say something to the public that is waiting to hear from you.”
On Wednesday, Attorney-General Avihai Mandelblit asked the House Committee to revoke Ghattas’ immunity in light of video evidence that the MK smuggled documents, cell phones and related equipment to two Fatah members in prison on terrorism charges.
Ghattas pointed out on Thursday that Mandelblit’s request to be given the ability to search and arrest a serving MK before an indictment, is unprecedented.
“There is no doubt that this extreme step, its timing and character, match the populist sound waves of House Committee members…which raises heave suspicions of bias in the Attorney General’s judgment while making the decision to submit the request, even though I came forward for questioning and answered all the investigators’ questions after I announced clearly that I will cooperate with any legal investigative act necessary at any time,” Ghattas stated.
As for the previous day’s House Committee vote, Ghattas said the meeting was populist and political, and he does not want the “atmosphere of wild incitement” against him to continue, so he agreed to have his immunity revoked to avoid another session of speeches and voting.
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, and 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.
On Tuesday, Ghattas turned up for questioning by the police, which lasted about four hours. At first, he denied giving anything to the prisoners, but, upon being shown the videos, 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.
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.”
Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri told the House Committee 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.
Parallel to the investigation, MKs have been working on other options to penalize Ghattas, since he would remain an MK and draw a salary even after arrest, until and unless he is convicted of a crime with moral turpitude.
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin has been working on gathering the 70 signatures he needs for the House Committee to call an impeachment hearing against Ghattas. He has 60, but the remaining 10 must come from the opposition, whose factions have thus far said they will not cooperate.
Should Elkin succeed, the House Committee would hold a hearing and the impeachment would have to be approved in the plenum by 90 MKs.
MK Oren Hazan (Likud) petitioned the Knesset Ethics Committee to dock Ghattas’ salary, which it can do if it suspends him, a request coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) made in a previous petition to the panel.