Benizri gets 1.5 years, NIS 80,000 fine

Shas's new MK Mazor Bayana plans trip to his native Ethiopia to push for increased immigration.

benizri court 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
benizri court 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
New Shas MK Mazor Bayana will be sworn in to the Knesset next Monday, in place of Shlomo Benizri, who was sentenced on Sunday to 18 months in prison and a fine of NIS 80,000 for accepting bribes, breach of faith, obstructing justice and conspiracy to commit a crime. Bayana enters the legislature as a result of a new law that automatically suspends MKs sentenced for crimes involving moral turpitude and allows the next name on a party list to enter. Bayana will serve until the Knesset completes its term, unless Benizri successfully appeals the court's ruling of moral turpitude. Shortly after Bayana enters the Knesset, he will visit his native Ethiopia with party chairman Eli Yishai to push for the government to expedite bringing over the remaining people eligible to enter Israel under the Law of Entry, despite the opposition of Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. Bayana, the rabbi of 10,000 Ethiopian immigrants in Beersheba, said he saw it as a personal mission to return the remnants of his community, who Sheetrit believes should be prevented from coming because they are Falash Mura - people whose Jewish ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. Bayana made aliya via Sudan in 1982 and studied at Jerusalem's Porat Yosef Yeshiva, one of the most prestigious Sephardi yeshivot in Israel. He manages an organization that provides educational and social assistance to Ethiopian immigrants. Bayana said he would focus his legislative efforts on promoting their education. He will become the third Ethiopian immigrant to serve in the legislature and the second one in the current Knesset, joining MK Shlomo Mula of Kadima. He said he was glad to enter the Knesset after coming close more than once, but was unhappy about the circumstances surrounding Benizri. "Happiness is far from me at this moment," Bayana said. "The government doesn't look like it is strong enough to last much longer, anyway. I'm not a prophet, but that's the way it looks." Benizri's sentence by the Jerusalem District Court was seen as unexpectedly lenient, after the state prosecution asked the judge earlier this month to sentence him to seven years in prison. It also asked the court at the time to rule that Benizri's crimes involved moral turpitude. Both the state prosecution and Benizri are expected to appeal the sentence. Following the sentencing, Benizri stressed the parts of the judge's ruling that praised him. "I was persecuted for eight years for no wrongdoing - despite all the allegations of having been given an apartment, $200,000, hotel rooms - I yelled 'Mercy!' because of my condition, having a family, children - the prosecution fought me relentlessly," Benizri said. "When I read the sentence, I could see the judge wrote things about me that would compliment any citizen in Israel. 'His family devotes considerable time for charity, volunteers for the benefit of the community, supporting the weak - all with [Shlomo] Benizri's support,'" he quoted from the sentence. Benizri omitted parts of the sentence discussing severe cases where he acted in conflict of interest. On April 1, Judge Ya'acov Tsaban convicted Benizri of accepting bribes, breach of faith, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to commit a crime. The bribery charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years, while two of the other three carry maximum sentences of three years each. Benizri's lawyers - Moshe Ostditsher, Amir Liran and Benny Nahari - had asked the court to give the former labor and social affairs minister a suspended sentence. Prosecutor Nurit Litman had told the court that it must send an unequivocal message that due to the severe crimes Benizri had committed, he must be sent to prison for a long time. Benizri's spiritual mentor, Rabbi Reuven Elbaz was also convicted of accepting a bribe as an intermediary and of conspiracy to commit a crime. Benizri was charged with accepting bribes from Moshe Sela, a foreign-labor contractor. The bribes included legal fees for a lawsuit in which Benizri was involved, as well as furniture, an air conditioning system and the renovation and painting of Benizri's apartment, including knocking down a wall separating it from an adjacent one owned by Sela. Benizri was convicted of trying, in return, to tip a tender for 4,000 foreign agricultural workers who could be moved from one employer to another, as well as other interventions on Sela's behalf. Elbaz was convicted of accepting NIS 200,000 and $30,000 in gifts for the rabbi's yeshiva, Ohr Hahayim. Dan Izenberg, Matthew Wagner and Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.