Recently resigned Balad MK Basel Ghattas was sentenced late Sunday by the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court to two years in prison and an NIS 120,000 fine when it accepted a plea bargain leading to his conviction for smuggling cellphones to security prisoners in Ketziot Prison in the Negev.Ghattas will start serving his sentence on July 2 at Dekel Prison and the court’s decision also carried a finding of moral turpitude which blocks him from returning to public office for seven years after his release as well as entails the loss of certain financial benefits which normally accrue to a former Knesset member.However, the hearing was not without drama, and at several points it seemed that the court would toss the plea bargain as too lenient.
From early Sunday, it was clear that the judge was not happy with the deal when he demanded that the prosecution explain a second time, and in more detail, why it had dropped some of the more serous crimes Ghattas was originally charged with and given so little jail time to Ghattas as part of the deal.The only question was whether the court was so dissatisfied with the deal that it would take the very unusual step of tossing the plea bargain.Courts almost always respect plea deals cut by the prosecution. But officially they are not bound by them and now and then courts assert their independence and give a different sentence than what was agreed to by the sides.Ultimately, the court said that the “plea bargain has substantially deviated from the proper balance” between a lenient punishment to avoid evidentiary problems at trial versus the public interest in full justice being served on law-breakers for their crimes. He wrote that Ghattas should have received a minimum of a two-and-a-half-year sentence.The prosecution suggested that it might have had evidentiary difficulties proving that Ghattas knew that the closed bag he was given contained cellphones as well as that his intent in smuggling the bag into prison was to assist with terrorism.From the start, Ghattas maintained that his confession to the indictment was only a confession to the act of smuggling the cellphones. He continued to claim that he was smuggling the cellphones for “humanitarian reasons” - in protest prisons’ denying security prisoners access to prison telephones that other prisoners get access to - and not to participate in any actions that could endanger lives.Even the verdict in March was only able to go forward after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by a group of right-wing activists to block the plea bargain and require a trial or harsher punishment of Ghattas – probably a factor which pressed the court on Sunday to accept the deal.The case has ratcheted up tension between the Balad party (one of four that make up the Joint List) and authorities over whether Ghattas committed a serious security offense or was being persecuted by law enforcement as part of a crackdown on loud politicians among the country’s Arab minority.
Basel Ghattas in court after being arrested for allegedly smuggling phones to prisoners, Dec. 23, 2016