One on one: Presidential case in point

Katsav attorney Zion Amir defends his client's campaign to clear his name as part of a larger crusade to uphold the crucial principle of citizens' rights.

katsav lawyers 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
katsav lawyers 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Zion Amir bursts through the glass doors of his Tel Aviv law offices, his undone necktie flapping against the lapels of his designer suit, and a wisp of coiffed gray hair spilling, Elvis-like, over one of his eyes. He is nearly an hour late, due to afternoon traffic from Jerusalem. His secretary hurriedly fills him in on all the calls from clients and messages that have accrued in his absence. He ushers me to his desk, where a pile of papers - one of which, he says, is a draft of a letter to the attorney-general - awaits his signature. He peruses each, pen in hand, quickly jotting corrections, before returning them for a retype. As he demands, via intercom, that no calls be put through during our short interview, his mobile rings. It is Army Radio asking him to go on the air in the early evening. He is non-committal. "Maybe," he says, brusquely. "Phone me later." It is clear from the ensuing "negotiations" that the producer is uncomfortable leaving the 5 o'clock line-up up to chance till the last minute. But the 50-year-old Amir, who has become as used to participating in media panels as presenting cases in criminal court, is unfazed by the pressure being applied to him by the person booking for the broadcast. The confidence that he will continue to be pursued until persuaded is well-founded. Representing a president accused of rape and sexual harassment would tend to turn an attorney into a hot commodity on the communications circuit, after all. Particularly when the accused declined to evacuate his post until he was forced to do so by the Knesset and attorney-general. Especially following the vitriolic press conference he gave, in which he lashed out at state institutions for conducting a comprehensive witch-hunt against him. And even more so after a guilty verdict was surprisingly slapped on former justice minister Haim Ramon for initiating what was determined to be an unwanted - if uncontested - kiss. The frosting on this icy though juicy climate was the recent resignation of Prof. David Liba'i from Katsav's defense team (and his replacement by criminal and human rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman) - something that, too, led to much malicious tongue-wagging. As did Katsav's decision not to be present at this week's Knesset House Committee discussion on impeachment procedure. (Amir finally attended, after protesting the possible illegality of the proceedings.) And then, as a backdrop to all this, there is Ramon's replacement as justice minister: Prof. Daniel Friedmann, as outspoken an opponent of the workings of the Israeli court system as one could encounter. This, says Amir, is a welcome development. Less welcome is what he calls the "unprecedented scope and quality of reportage" that has accompanied the Katsav case, which has led to the former resident of Beit Hanassi having to prove his innocence - running contrary to his "rights as a citizen." For this, Amir asserts, he has leaks to the media to blame - a phenomenon he says must be eradicated. To this end, he says, he has repeatedly requested that Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate everyone connected with the case. What is the meaning of sub judice? That the details of legal actions in process may not be published, so as not to influence the court. In president katsav's case, it seems not to be in effect. the public is treated daily to reports of allegations, investigations, testimonies, speculations and gossip. I cannot recall a legal case like it, in terms of the scope and quality of reportage - about the president and the investigation; about this piece of evidence or that, from this plaintiff or that. Even about the lawyer representing a particular plaintiff [Here he is referring to attorney Kinneret Barashi and her client, "A."] It is unprecedented. Indeed, a retired Supreme Court justice said that the president has already been convicted by the media, and that if he himself had been the president's lawyer, he would have requested that the court erase the charges, under the principle of just representation. I believe he also said that a judge would have to be made of steel not to be influenced by the flood of press reports, the ultimate result of which - if not entire aim - is the conviction of the president. It's interesting that you are accusing the media of aiming to convict your client. In former justice minister Haim Ramon's "indecent act" verdict, the judges reproached the media for expressing overwhelming support for the defendant - almost hinting that this played a part in his conviction. Which just goes to show that the media does have an influence in one way or another. You don't know whether media support is going to influence a judge positively or negatively. Either way, the media carries weight. But, if you're already on the subject of Ramon, that [guilty] verdict definitely deserves criticism, but for another reason. Anyone who reads it can only be amazed at the discrepancy between the body of the text and the conclusions reached. I read it extremely carefully. According to the judges' findings, I would agree with and completely trust everything they wrote. Yet, while reading it, all I could do was wait for the sentence that said, "In light of the above, we have decided to acquit the defendant." The conclusions simply do not match the rest of it. Speaking of criticism of judges' rulings, what is your opinion of Ramon's replacement, Daniel Friedmann, as justice minister? Supporters and opponents alike seem to agree that his appointment bodes change in the workings of the court system. Is this a positive or negative development? It is clear that Friedmann was not appointed because of his expertise in contracts law - or even because of his being an Israel Prize-winner - though these are certainly advantages. He was appointed because he has an agenda - one which he has been expressing for years. His agenda is what could be called "contrary." It's contrary to the Supreme Court; it's contrary to the State's Attorney's Office; it's contrary to the Attorney-General's Office; it's contrary to the Judges' Appointments Committee. This doesn't alarm me. It is welcome, as far as I'm concerned. Furthermore, even if I had had any doubts about his appointment, they would have been overturned immediately after the appalling statements made by retired Supreme Court justice Mishael Cheshin. [In a letter to Friedmann, Cheshin wrote: "...My power is limited, but I will defend the Supreme Court with all my might... My father was a justice in the first Supreme Court, I was its deputy president. This is my home, and I will cut off the hand of whomever raises it against my home."] He'll cut off the hand of anyone who touches his - oh, excuse me, his and his father's - own personal court? Had I not already been convinced that change is precisely what is needed now, such threats would have persuaded me. Of course, there will be supporters and opponents of any changes; there will be arguments and discussions - from which Israeli society will benefit, as will the legal system. Friedmann's views and agenda are not hate-based, but rather come from the desire to implement changes that a large part of the public has been waiting for. Will he really be able to succeed in implementing this change-based agenda? Well, we might soon be hearing our new justice minister uttering the well-known phrase: "What you see from there looks different from here." Then, as often happens when someone reaches a certain high position and gets comfortable in his chair, not only what he says in public speeches or writes in the newspapers starts being modified, but even his thinking shifts, to the extent that all the previous ills of the system remain intact. This is one fear surrounding his appointment. It often happens that people with an agenda achieve power and then forget what brought them to their position in the first place. Powerful institutions have proven time and again to be stronger than individuals who try to get in their way. Is the court system some sort of impenetrable club? I don't know if I would call it impenetrable - though it certainly used to be. But over the past few years, there have been more and more cracks in the walls of that club, and more broken windows, through which some figures enter and some exit. This has brought more diversity to the traditionally homogeneous milieu. There's more criticism being voiced than in the past. The High Court, for example, has opened its gates to such a huge range of issues and petitioners. And whoever opens gates to criticism often becomes the focus of criticism. New and brave figures penetrating an old system can serve to build, not destroy, it. Friedmann is the right man in the right place at the right time. Does the fact that he was appointed in the middle of Katsav's case affect it in any way? Not really. Except for one specific issue that comes to mind - leaks. Over the course of the past few months, my former partner in this case, David Liba'i, and I repeatedly requested of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz that he appoint an inquiry commission into the phenomenon of leaks, which has gotten out of hand. In general, or in the Katsav case in particular? In general and in the Katsav case in particular. In all of the attorney-general's responses to our letters, he has said that leaks are a dangerous phenomenon and that everything has to be done to eradicate them. They constitute a serious violation of the basic rights of suspects, and they do damage to the tools and the ability to overcome the problem itself. The leaks in the Katsav case hurt him not only as a president, but as a citizen. And the time has come to create a commission to get to the bottom of this. I hope [Friedmann] is able to create a mechanism that will put an end to this once and for all. Did this phenomenon of leaks contribute to Liba'i's resignation from the case? I suggest you direct any questions about why Professor Liba'i is no longer on Katsav's defense team at him. He's a good friend of mine and that's all I have to say. Did his resignation harm Katsav? The way I see it, no harm was done. We will continue fighting this case with the same determination as before. Regarding your request that the attorney-general establish an inquiry commission: The entire case became public knowledge when Katsav informed the attorney-general that he was being blackmailed. This suggests that the first leak came from the Attorney-General's Office. If so, how can that be the office which establishes the commission? I don't know if the attorney-general leaked anything, and I'm not pointing any fingers at anyone. In any case, it is always desirable for an investigation to be carried out by an independent body - not by the police. Which is why I have requested a commission that would investigate everybody involved, without exceptions. Do you sense a general shift in the cultural climate in this country which is leading to the criminalization of male behavior? With all the talk about the media's negative impact on the public and the courts, one neglects to notice that it could be the other way around - that it is in fact public sentiment influencing the media and the courts. The most recent example is the High Court's ruling this week in favor of a woman who, in the midst of consensual sex with a man she was dating, changed her mind and then accused him of rape. I heard about that verdict, but I haven't read it yet. And, as a lawyer, I have to base my opinions on facts. If, in fact, it is as reported, it raises serious questions, to put it mildly. On the issue of the relations between men and women in Israeli society, I do have strong opinions, but I prefer not to express them here. That's for a different interview, when I'm wearing a different hat. I will say, however, that in many ways I'm a feminist in my outlook. But examples like the one you gave are indicative of extremism. I believe that the silent majority in this country doesn't hold extremist positions on this subject. That's worth remembering. The extremists have too many microphones and are heard on too high of a decibel level, which often makes it seem as though they constitute the majority. But they don't. The most common opinion I have heard voiced about the Katsav case - from both men and women on either side of the political spectrum - is that Katsav probably didn't rape anyone, but had multiple sexual escapades with women subordinate to him. Do you have something to say in response? I certainly have much to say, but this isn't the appropriate forum or time for it. However, given what you say you have been hearing from people, I can comment that I have great respect and admiration for the anonymous masses - those whose voices we don't hear and whose faces we don't recognize. It's not surprising that the common feeling is as you describe. Apparently, even some senior members of the Justice Ministry legal team were of the opinion that there was no place for indicting the president. And it could be - I don't know, because I didn't take part in those discussions, but to the extent that I can express a professional opinion - that this opinion [not to indict] has a basis in the evidence presented. I can also say with certainty that President Katsav never hurt or harmed any woman. In retrospect, do you think Katsav would have done better to step down and leave Beit Hanassi the minute the case became public - the way Ramon did? There's no simple answer to that question, because whole situation isn't simple. And if you're using the example of Ramon, look what happened to him: He got slapped with a conviction. So, he's not a good example to follow. I mean, he behaved supposedly like a gentleman, and supposedly did the right thing. I'm not saying that the steps he took weren't the right ones or wise - but we see what the end result was. He was convicted. But that's not because he left his post to deal with the case. We'll never know. As for the question of whether the president should have stepped down or taken temporary suspension much earlier on: The president, on more than one occasion, wanted to put an end to this whole business. But questions were raised about basic rights and norms in Israeli society and its institutions, and fighting for them - something an anonymous person living in Metulla with some small unknown case against him doesn't have the ability to struggle for. Some of the president's deliberations on what to do involved this consideration. He feels very hurt. Humiliated. His rights were trampled on. Awful stuff - having to prove his innocence. Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner expressed her horror at hearing that a person has to prove his innocence. It is guilt that is supposed to be proved, not the other way around. This case, then, has become a major battle to uphold certain crucial principles, not merely a personal case of an individual. Is Katsav's career finished, even if he emerges legally unscathed? History will be a better judge than we are. It's part of our genetic code to want to leave our mark. That's why we have children, for example, to continue our lineage - especially people who believe in God. And Katsav is a believer. He wants to exit this world clean, the way he entered it. Do you suspect that the fact that the case emerged when it did indicates that it was politically motivated by Katsav rivals? I'm not a political analyst, but I will say that before this whole thing erupted, Katsav was incredibly popular in the Likud. Understand from that what you wish.