Gag order on Holyland witness to remain until testimony

Court also rules that trial will be held before Judge David Rozen.

Holyland still on hold 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Holyland still on hold 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Tel Aviv District Court ruled on Tuesday that a gag order preventing publication of the name and identity of the main state witness in the Holyland affair will remain in place, at least until the witness testifies in the trial.
The state witness, known only as “S.D.,” gave testimony that directly led to the Holyland investigation and to indictments against three companies and 13 individuals, among them former prime minister Ehud Olmert, in what has been deemed one of the largest corruption scandals in Israeli history.
According to the indictment, Holyland real estate developers paid tens of millions of shekels to public employees and elected officials to advance the projects, including by substantially shortening planning times, smoothing over planning objections, re-zoning land and giving tax breaks.
Tuesday’s ruling came after Hebrew-language daily Yediot Aharonot petitioned the court earlier this month, asking that the court-imposed gag order on S.D.’s name and details be revoked. Four of the 13 Holyland defendants – former prime minister Olmert, former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit, Jerusalem entrepreneur Meir Rabin and Jerusalem city councilman Avraham Finer – supported the petition to remove the gag order.
In a hearing two weeks ago, lawyers for Yediot Aharonot argued that the public had a right to know S.D.’s identity.
They also slammed the gag order as “ridiculous,” saying that information in the indictment made it easy for the public to deduce S.D.’s real identity, not least because these details were already in the public domain on websites like Wikipedia.
In his ruling, Judge Oded Mudrik said the gag order should remain in place, at least until S.D. completes his testimony in the trial. The judge spoke of a “clash” between the public’s right to know and the complex web of circumstances surrounding the witness which he said “gave rise to a significant concern about the integrity of [his] testimony if [S.D.’s] identity is revealed.”
Mudrik referred to a policeevaluation report regarding potential threats to S.D. if the gag order was lifted, which he said discussed “concerns of unbearable infringements to his privacy and lifestyle,” mainly because of expected media harassment, should the court permit S.D.’s name and photograph to be published.
The judge also noted that it would be up to the trial court’s discretion as to whether the state witness would be asked to testify in open court or in a closed-door session.
Earlier this month, the State Attorney’s Office revealed it has afforded S.D. complete immunity from prosecution in return for his turning state witness in the scandal.
According to the State Attorney’s Office, S.D. turned to police through his lawyers in the second half of 2009, and offered to reveal everything he knew about the Holyland real estate project and about alleged criminal offenses relating to Yavor, Shalem and Mevchur Farms. He did so in order to commence civil lawsuits against others involved in the affair.
In a separate ruling on Tuesday, the Tel Aviv District Court decided that the Holyland trial would be heard before a single judge. Judge David Rozen has been selected as the trial judge who will hear the case.
Court President Dvora Berliner said in her ruling on the matter that the Holyland case was not unusual in nature and did not justify an expanded panel.
The State Attorney’s Office had requested that a panel of three judges hear the case, citing the complexity of the case and its potential far-reaching public and legal implications.
However, several of the defendants’ attorneys argued that the State Attorney’s Office had overstated the complexity of the case, which they said rested entirely on the testimony of the state witness, S.D., and whether the court finds him to credible.
Berliner refrained from addressing that particular question, but said the trial will require the state witness to give many hours of testimony, and therefore it was fitting that a single judge devote himself to the case.
The judge also said that while the crime of bribery is “a cancer that has spread through the body of public service and may send out dangerous metastases if it is not uprooted,” the Courts Law permits a single judge to hear bribery cases.