Panel to focus on botched hitman deal

Zeiler C'tee to hear testimony about cop-turned-hitman Tzahi Ben-Or.

tzahi ben-or 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 1)
tzahi ben-or 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 1)
The Zeiler Committee will hear testimony Sunday from Southern District Attorney Yisca Leibowitz and former Southern Central Investigative Unit chief Benny Sagiv, the only two people scheduled to testify before the committee this week. Both their names came up repeatedly in last week's testimony by Police Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi and Jerusalem District chief, Cmdr. Ilan Franco, and followers of the case's developments had surmised that Leibowitz would be called to testify. Questions have arisen as to why the attorney failed to make a deal with potential state's witness cop-turned-hitman Tzahi Ben-Or, a deal that could have potentially sealed the case against the Negev's Perinian crime family in the 1999 killing of gangster Pinhas Buhbout. In September 1999, two hit men disguised as policemen - including Ben-Or - assassinated Buhbout as he lay in a ward at the Sheba Medical Center, recovering from a previous attempt on his life. Ben-Or was arrested shortly after on robbery charges and confessed to the murder, claiming he was hired by the Perinian family from Hodaya, near Ashkelon. According to previous testimony, the prosecutor and the police failed to agree on the conditions for an agreement to turn Ben-Or into a state's witness. Ben-Or reportedly demanded a three-year-long sentence in exchange for his testimony, while Leibowitz allegedly insisted that the former cop serve six years. In absence of a deal, Ben-Or was released to house arrest and then fled the country. While police claimed to be unable to locate Ben-Or, gangsters apparently succeeded, murdering the would-be state's witness in Cancun, Mexico in 2004. Leibowitz's testimony will likely focus on the failed plea bargain, as well as the inability of the police and the prosecution to build a case against the Perinian syndicate. Leibowitz also reportedly had a long history of difficulty in dealing with Asst.-Cmdr. Yoram Levy, a high-ranking police officer in the Southern District who maintained ties with the Perinians. Leibowitz made headlines earlier in the hearings, when she blasted the committee, telling its members they were not conducting the investigation properly and that they lacked the authority to criticize her. She also charged that the committee's investigation lacked focus. Committee chairman, former District Court Judge Vardi Zeiler, returned Leibowitz's fire, saying: "First of all, we thank attorney Leibowitz for enlightening us on how to conduct an investigation We have a difficult job. No one likes to be investigated. [However,] we will discharge every one of our responsibilities and ask you not to make things harder for us than they already are." The second witness testifying before the committee Sunday, Sagiv, is a former head of the same elite unit that was later taken over by Levy. The unit has come under fire for its mishandling of the investigation into the Buhbout murder, some of which occurred while Sagiv led the crack investigative team. The brunt of Sagiv's testimony will likely focus on the way that the case was handled, including whether police deliberately obfuscated the investigation. Karadi testified last week that a senior police officer had told him that in the course of the Buhbout investigation, the CIU "made every mistake possible." The top cop added that when he began his tenure in the district, the CIU 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 that "I don't even go to visit the CIU any more."