As the afternoon progressed, the temperature in the tiny room in which the Zeiler Commission met rose, the journalists packed tightly into three narrow benches shifted their weight, and commission chairman Vardi Zeiler's questions grew repetitive, but police commissioner Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi kept his cool through four straight hours of testimony. Israel's top cop testified Sunday before the commission probing allegations of police mishandling of the cases surrounding the 1999 murder of underworld criminal Pinhas Buhbout and elite police officer-turned gangland assassin Tzahi Ben-Or.
While the long-anticipated testimony shed light on the selection process used to nominate Asst.-Cmdr. Yoram Levy to a sensitive position and added to the criticism of the Southern District's Central Investigative Unit's treatment of a crucial murder case, no great revelations were heard in the four hours of testimony that were open to the press.
Karadi began his testimony by leading the three commission members through an almost hour-long computer-aided presentation that described the role, function and organizational structure of the Southern District, which Karadi commanded during a large portion of the period in which the events being investigated occurred. Beyond acquainting the commission members with the structure of the district, Karadi also did not miss the opportunity to discuss the reforms that he made during his tenure, as well as the successes in closing murder cases.
With Karadi's successes fresh in the ears of the panel, former district court judge Vardi Zeiler opened the more confrontational segment of the testimony by addressing the Buhbout murder, asking the police commander when he first heard of the case. Karadi said that he had heard of the murder first through the media, as he was at the time serving as the commander of the Border Police training base. As the questioning continued, Karadi said that the case resurfaced periodically during his tenure as Southern District commander, but that it was never a top priority.
The police commissioner directed a barrage of criticism towards the state of the Southern District's Central Investigative Unit, the elite division which was charged with cracking complex cases, including the Buhbout murder and the Ben Or investigation. He said that when he began his tenure in the district, the unit was in a state of disorder. On his first visit to the unit's Netivot headquarters, he recalled, he was told of 14 unsolved murder cases, including the Buhbout case. His predecessor had despaired of the unit, he said, telling him "I don't even go to visit the CIU any more."
Karadi continued to detail a series of vignettes illustrating the CIU's evasive responses and questionable behavior with regard to the Buhbout case, quoting a senior officer as telling him that "there's a case at the CIU where, my God, they've made every mistake possible."
Vardi's questioning then changed direction and focused on Karadi's controversial appointment of Levy to head the troubled CIU, even after allegations had already surfaced that Levy had ongoing relations with the Peri-Perinian family, a crime ring suspected of involvement in Buhbout's murder.
Levy has been accused of accepting bribes from brothers Sharon and Oded Perinian and in exchange, tipping them off before police raids on their illegal casinos. Senior police officers have testified that members of the crime family were seen frequenting Levy's house late at night. Levy has maintained throughout that he was using the suspected gangsters as sources to help with investigations, but critics have said that despite the long relationship, few - if any - leads were gained on cases through the relationship.
Karadi testified that Levy was a strong candidate for the job, and read out a long list of recommendations emphasizing the point, including one that he had written in 1998, while serving as commander of the Lachish Subdistrict, that suggested that Levy was especially suited for the CIU appointment. In the most detailed testimony about the problematic appointment yet presented to the commission, Karadi said that Levy had previously been considered for other high-ranking sensitive positions, and that his relations with the Perinians had never been considered a preventing factor for those positions. He added that of the three candidates for the CIU position, Levy was far and away the best qualified, and the only one willing to live in the district.
Karadi denied charges first aired over a year ago during a Channel 2 investigative report that he had purposely withheld Levy's inconclusive polygraph results from senior officers also involved in approving the promotion
Karadi appeared calm throughout the testimony, remaining standing for the entire four-hour-long session. He occasionally leaned against the wall, with his arms folded against his barrel chest, as though he was holding a casual conversation.
Even when he delivered harsh criticism of former Southern District CIU head Amir Gur, a vocal critic of Levy, Karadi's tone remained even as he described the senior officer as a source "whose believability is very low."
Karadi did, however, acknowledge that Levy had disobeyed orders in continuing to meet with the Perinians even after Karadi had personally instructed him to put an end to the meetings.
Other than detailing the exceptional number of administrative reviews, investigations and precautions taken before hiring Levy, Karadi's testimony - or at least the part open to the public - seemed unlikely to reveal any drastic developments in the commission's investigation. The commission did, however, reconvene behind closed doors following the four hours of open testimony. During that second part, Karadi was expected to offer more pinpointed criticism on issues that he deemed too sensitive to be made public.
In January, after testimony had already been heard before the Zeiler Committee, Karadi made an official request to appear before the committee after his name came up repeatedly during the first week of testimony. During the opening session of the committee, Gur, former head of the Southern District's CIU, took the stand and accused Karadi of using "poor judgment" when appointing Levy to head the CIU.
The committee is charged with reviewing the way police led the six-year investigation into the Buhbout murder and the conduct of the prosecution, which accompanied investigators throughout the process, beginning following the 1999 murder. Police believe that southern crime bosses Oded and Sharon Perinian hired former policeman Tzahi Ben-Or to murder Buhbout while the latter was recuperating from a previous attempt on his life.
The Buhbout murder case was finally solved last summer by the police's elite investigative squad - the Serious and International Crimes Unit (SICU) - a mere six months after the elite unit received the case from the Southern District. As early as 2002, senior officers had requested that the case be transferred away from the Southern District.
|Timeline of the Perinan case:
September 1999: Two hit men dressed in police uniforms murder underworld figure Pinhas Buhbout at Sheba Hospital, Tel Hashomer.
October 2000: Former elite policeman Tzahi Ben-Or was arrested for armed robbery. Head of the Southern District's Central Investigative Unit Asst.-Cmdr. Amir Gur suspected Ben-Or, who at the time of the murder was still on the police force, shot and killed Buhbot.
2000-2002: Under arrest for the robbery charges, Ben-Or conducted negotiations with police and prosecution about turning state's witness against the Perinan brothers, underworld figures in the south who he claimed hired him to murder Buhbot.
Summer 2002: Ben-Or was released on house arrest and fled the country.
December 2004: Ben-Or was found murdered in Cancun, Mexico. The police investigation is transferred from the Southern District to the Serious and International Crimes Unit.
August 2005: Oded and Sharon Perinan were arrested following a month-long manhunt.
October 2005: The Perinan brothers were indicted for the murder of Pinhas Buhbout. |