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After refusing for several months, the Justice Ministry agreed on Tuesday to provide a list of all the requests for pardons submitted to President Moshe Katsav in 2004 and 2005, as well as the Justice Ministry's recommendation on each request and the president's final decision.
The request was submitted by the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel.
After the Justice Ministry refused to provide the information, the movement, represented by attorney Boaz Ben-Tzur, petitioned the Jerusalem District Court. During the legal proceedings, the petitioners and the state reached a compromise that has now been endorsed by the court.
In its petition, the Movement for Freedom of Information explained that the information about the pardons was particularly important in light of allegations that Katsav gave access to the classified files to a few of his cronies and that these friends may have determined the priority of the files and influenced Katsav's decisions on the requests themselves. Katsav has denied these allegations.
According to the pardon procedure, defendants convicted of a crime may appeal to the president, asking him to reduce the prison sentence or set the prisoner free.
The request is handled by a special department in the Justice Ministry that examines it and submits its recommendation to the justice minister as to whether to accept or reject it. The justice minister's decision comes in the form of a recommendation to the president who, essentially, has the final say. He is the one who ultimately approves or rejects the request.
According to Tuesday's agreement, the Justice Ministry will provide detailed lists of all the requests for pardons submitted to Katsav in 2004 and 2005. The lists will not include the names of the applicants, but they will reveal the recommendation of the Justice Ministry regarding each request and the final decision made by Katsav.
They will also provide dates for when the application was submitted, when the justice minister made his recommendation and when the president made the final decision.
Following the court's ruling on Tuesday, the Justice Ministry tried to downplay its importance.
"The court decision allows the publication of technical-administrative data only, without any identifying details regarding those who made the requests, the contents of the requests or the contents of the justice minister's recommendation," ministry spokesman Moshe Cohen said. "There is nothing in this information that sheds light on the policy of granting pardons and therefore it does not provide for a substantive examination of the procedure, except for the speed with which it is conducted (an important subject in itself, but not among the aims of the petitioners who hoped to find pardons that were granted illegally.)"
But Ro'i Peleg, the head of the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel, disagreed.
"The information will provide us with two key facts," he told The Jerusalem Post. "The first is whether or not there were certain requests that were handled with uncharacteristic speed. The second is whether there were cases in which the justice minister recommended denying the request and the president overruled him."
Peleg said he did not ask for the names of those filing the requests because of the applicants' right to privacy.
However, "the balance between the right to privacy and the public's right to know could change if there are facts that raise suspicions of impropriety. The important thing is first to reveal the facts. After that, if there is reason to take another step, either we or some other organization can do so."
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