After five years of court battles over his controversial statements allegedly supporting terror organizations, the High Court of Justice (HCJ) finally ruled Wednesday in favor of MK Azmi Bishara, chairman of the Balad party, and stated that his parliamentary immunity prevents him from being put on trial for his statements. The court also ordered all related criminal proceedings against him to be dropped.
"This ruling says something about the High Court of Justice," Bishara told The Jerusalem Post as he walked out of the courtroom. "It shows it respects the freedom of expression and I hope that they will continue in the path of [Supreme Court President Aharon] Barak."
Meanwhile, Attorney General Menahem Mazuz has called on the police to open an investigation into Bishara's recent trip to Lebanon. "I am being politically hunted," Bishara responded.
Bishara was put on trial after former attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein called for a police investigation into two speeches he gave. At the first speech in Umm el-Fahm in 2000, Bishara praised Hizbullah for successfully pushing the IDF out of s o u t h e r n Lebanon. The second speech was made almost a year later in Damascus at the oneyear memorial for former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. There, Bishara again praised the "Lebanese resistance" and said that "resistance" was a path that could be taken which lies between all-out-war and accepting Israeli conditions.
In 2001, a Jerusalem court charged Bishara with supporting terror organizations. He claimed that he could not be put on trial because his parliamentary immunity protected him from criminal charges and gave him the freedom of expression to make such statements. The court refused to a c c e p t Bishara's arguments and so he appealed to the High Court of Justice through Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab M i n o r i t y Rights in Israel. On Wednesday, Barak and Justice Eliezer Rivlin voted in favor of clearing Bishara while Justice Esther Hayut voted against.
Both Barak and Rivlin stated that parliamentary immunity to make statements - even when they are controversial or criminal - is necessary for effective political representation, participation in the public debate, and for the democratic process.
In his ruling, Barak wrote that his decision did not indicate that Bishara's statements were acceptable. "I started from the assumption that [Bishara's] statements violated a criminal prohibition against support for a terror organization. [Bishara's] statements are very hard, they grate terribly on the ears.
Nevertheless, I found that they were said within the framework of fulfilling his roleâ€¦as a member of Knesset. We need to protect and defend the ability of the members of Knesset to fulfill their positions without fear. This protection, called substantive immunity, represents a very high interest of the publicâ€¦[and] is vital for the existence of Israeli democracy."
Rivlin noted that the difference between praising and supporting a terror organization and between supporting an armed struggle against Israel was already determined in the ruling concerning MK Ahmed Tibi.
"The distinction is not easyâ€¦but as long as there is a doubt - it is better to "err"on the side of freedom of expression," wrote Rivlin.
Bishara left the courtroom shaking hands with Balad party members and friends who came to show their support. A group of nine Druze men dressed in their traditional long white robes and headdresses kissed him on both cheeks in the hall outside.
Although Bishara was pleased with the ruling, he was concerned with the original accusations. "There is a delegitimization of the political stance of the Palestinian Arabs that are citizens of Israel," he told The Post. "[Former MK] Dan Meridor said at the time that you can't put someone on trial for expressing their political opinions."