Main witness in Holyland trial against Olmert dies

State's main witness in trial of former PM passes away; he had been hospitalized several times in the past due to poor health.

The Holyland Tower in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The Holyland Tower in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The main witness in the Holyland trial against former prime minister Ehud Olmert and 15 other defendants died on Friday morning.
The witness, referred to only as S.D. under a gag order, was in his mid-70s. He had been hospitalized at least three times due to poor health, disrupting the case conducted at the Tel Aviv District Court.
His death could have a tremendous impact on the case, but the exact ramifications are not yet clear.
Olmert stands accused of taking bribes regarding the Holyland real-estate project in southwestern Jerusalem, built to a size far beyond the authorized limit.
The Justice Ministry was taken by surprise on Friday by the news, and said it would provide updates as the situation developed.
Later in the day, the ministry came out with a strongly worded statement leaving no doubt that the state would continue to pursue charges against all of the defendants.
The statement said S.D. had testified for 75 days in court over a period of eight months, and that his direct testimony and the months of cross-examination were sufficient for both prosecution and defense purposes.
The ministry added that its position since the start of the case had been that while S.D.
was the main witness, the primary case was based on documents from other parties and sources, thus there was no reason to declare a mistrial.
Olmert’s spokesman did not respond by press time to inquiries about his strategy, or if he would seek a mistrial.
A mistrial is a situation where the court decides that charges must be dropped, regardless of a defendant’s innocence or guilt, because the inability to complete cross-examination of a witness precludes a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The state expressed “great sadness” at S.D.’s death and said it “shared in the sorrow of his family.” S.D. is due to be buried on Sunday, which will delay court proceedings until Monday morning.
Until further court notice, the gag order on S.D.’s identity still applies.
S.D.’s attorney Amnon Yitzhak told Army Radio the case had been “an emotional and physical burden on an old and sick man.” Yitzhak explained that his client felt ill overnight, and died at 4:30 a.m., though doctors tried to resuscitate him.
During a hearing on Thursday, hours before S.D.’s death, Olmert’s lawyer Roi Belcher confronted the witness with many details that had emerged in the affair and accused him of being a “pathological liar.”
“He can say what he wants, and I can’t say that he is a pathological liar?” Belcher said.
Over the past week, Olmert’s legal team pounded the witness, getting him to admit that he gave documents to the state – presented in court as evidence – that he himself had falsified.
At the start of the case, S.D.
had admitted to falsifying documents and stories against the defendants, but said the forgeries had only been submitted in his earlier civil action, and that everything he told the court in the criminal proceeding was true.
Over the course of other defendants’ cross-examination of the witness, it was proven that he had also falsified documents used in the current criminal proceedings against them.
On Tuesday, in a documentary analysis that S.D. at first resisted, but eventually gave in to, Olmert’s legal team proved for the first time that a document which S.D. and the state had submitted, to prove Olmert’s involvement in corruption surrounding the Holyland project, was a forgery.
S.D. said the document showed a 1994 request from Olmert to involve the Barzilai accounting firm in the Holyland project. His handwriting appeared on the document and Olmert’s legal team proved that S.D. had forged the document, because the telephone number that appeared on it could not have existed until 1996, at the earliest.
S.D. appeared to alternately admit it was a forgery, suggest the photocopy might have been recopied on another page at a later date, and say he had forgotten the circumstances.
Realizing the potential damage to his credibility resulting from the line of questioning, S.D. told the court, “I forged documents, but not systematically.”
Not willing to let the witness wiggle out of this legal fire zone, Belcher jumped in and asked if he had forged documents “with the purpose of misleading the authorities,” playing on the idea that S.D. could also be misleading the court.
The witness admitted he had forged documents with that purpose in mind.
Later in the hearing, Judge David Rozen temporarily dropped the traditional judge’s mask, indirectly implying that Olmert’s lawyers had succeeded in sowing doubts in his mind about the evidence against Olmert.
Rozen also made a remark to Belcher suggesting that since the case against Olmert was weak, they could wrap it up, and the court could move on to other defendants who faced more serious evidence.
Emotions ran high throughout the hearing, with S.D. and Belcher calling each other a “liar” numerous times, and the court having to intervene, asking the parties to refrain from “personal attacks.”
Last Sunday, Olmert received another big break in the case, when his lawyers revealed a list from S.D.’s diary, containing the names of people who had received bribes, and from which Olmert’s was absent.
The forged document from Tuesday’s hearing could cause the judge to conclude that he must now doubt the veracity of all documents presented by S.D. against Olmert.
Belcher also exposed the witness as either forgetting, or lying about not remembering, that Olmert had supported the Holyland project, including at public press conferences with former tourism minister Uzi Baram, even before the earliest date when S.D. said he had bribed Olmert for his support.
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this story.