(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
The Holyland trial opened in the Tel Aviv District Court on Monday afternoon, as Judge David Rozen ordered the main state witness in the case to testify four full days a week starting on July 1st.
Rozen said the state witness, the identity of whom cannot be released because of a strict gag order, will testify from 8:30 a.m. through 8 p.m. The judge’s decision comes after the prosecution requested that the state witness be allowed to give his testimony early, in the light of a severe medical condition.
Sixteen defendants – 13 of them individuals, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert, and three companies – are named in the indictment, which charges that Holyland real estate developers paid tens of millions of shekels to public employees and elected officials to advance the projects. Advancements included substantially shortening planning times, smoothing over planning objections, re-zoning land, providing tax breaks and increasing the permitted amount of construction.
Indicted alongside Olmert are former Jerusalem mayor and chairman of the Jerusalem municipality’s Planning and Construction Committee Uri Lupolianski, former Jerusalem deputy mayor and city councilman Eliezer Shamhiof, Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken, city councilman Avraham Finer and former city engineer Uri Shetrit.
Also charged are businessman Hilel Cherny, who owned land rights to the Holyland project, former Polar Investments CEO Avigdor Kelner, who owns a stake in Holyland, Polar Investments manager Amnon Safran, Jerusalem entrepreneur Meir Rabin and Shimon Galon, the CEO of Kardan Real Estate, which also owned a stake in the project.
In addition to the 13 defendants, three companies are also named on the indictment: Holyland Tayerut Ltd., which is held by Polar Investments; Holyland Park Ltd.; and Holyland Leisure Services Ltd., for which Cherny serves as director. Former chairman of Bank Hapoalim and Israel Salt Industries Dan Dankner and former Israel Lands Authority (ILA) head Yaakov Efrati are also charged with giving and receiving bribes relating to re-zoning of salt flats in Atlit and Eilat.
Almost all of the defendants and their attorneys attended the hearing, but Olmert and Zaken were notably absent. Eli Zohar and Iris Niv-Sabag, attorneys for Olmert, and Micha Pettman, attorney for Zaken, told the judge that their clients could not be present because the Holyland trial is being conducted at the same time as their other corruption trial in the Jerusalem District Court.
Rabin arrived late for the hearing, and his attorney explained that this was because of a “personal matter.” Judge Rozen said that Rabin’s personal problem was actually the defense’s problem, and that if Rabin did not show up he would be detained. Rabin eventually arrived as the hearing was ending, and received a rebuke from the judge for arguing with him.
To accommodate the unusually large number of attorneys, the court moved the hearing into its largest courtroom, which was filled to overflowing with reporters and members of the public who came to watch the proceedings.
During the largely technical arraignment hearing, the defense were expected to respond to each of the prosecution’s charges in the indictment and enter a plea. However, the defendants’ attorneys argued that they had not yet received the bulk of the evidentiary material from the prosecution.
Prosecuting attorney Liat Ben-Ari from the Tel Aviv District Attorney’s Office told the court that there was a “gargantuan” amount of evidentiary material, which takes up over 750 binders and 250 boxes.
Zaken’s attorney Pettman told the judge he was concerned that he would not receive the material in time to adequately prepare for the trial.
Zaken has been a “full-time defendant for the last four years,” added Pettman, and said the former prime minister’s bureau chief attended court hearings four times a week.
Judge Rozen said in his ruling that the state must do everything in its power to transfer the evidentiary material to the defendants' attorneys within the shortest possible time.
"This may well require a special effort, and it may be that the company that photocopies the material will have to work beyond its normal working hours, but because this is a special case, it is only proper that every effort is made to copy the material or to scan it within the shortest possible time," the judge said.