Pardon of Former Bank Official Stirs Political Opposition, Anger

The Labor Alignment and the Democratic Front for Peace (Communist) have demanded a special recess session of the Knesset to discuss the pardon of Yehoshua Benzion, former director general of the Israel-Britain Bank, who was released from prison today after serving two years of a 12-year prison term for embezzlement. The pardon was signed by President Ephraim Katzir Monday on the recommendation of Premier Menachem Begin who acted in his capacity as Minister of Justice.

Benzion was convicted in 1975, seven months after the government seized the Israel-Britain Bank that was tottering on the brink of failure. The government eventually lost several hundred million Pounds honoring the bank’s commitment. Benzion was found guilty of having stolen $47 million from the bank and transferring it to his wife’s family. In addition to the prison term he was fined IL 25 million, the largest fine ever imposed by an Israel court.

The opposition factions charged that Begin favored Benzion for political reasons. The former bank official was a prominent supporter of the Greater Israel Movement and, reportedly, a generous contributor to the militant Gush Emunim-Charges that he also contributed heavily to Begin’s Herut party were denied in a statement issued yesterday by the Premier. Begin said that he had once approach Benzion for contributions but was turned down.

MEDICAL REPORT PROMPTS RELEASE

Begin based his recommendation for Benzion’s release on a medical report by two physicians, Profs. Moshe Rahmilevitz and Ezra Zohar, who said that the prisoner, 52, was suffering from a serious and possibly total illness. But Black Panther members of the Communist faction today released a secret report by a medical committee which stated that Benzion’s condition did not justify a pardon on health grounds.

The Black Panthers said they publicized the report which had been written at the request of the Health Ministry because “thousands of prisoners rot in their cells while others are pardoned because of their political affiliation.”

A spokesman for Begin acknowledged today that the Premier had seen both medical reports and chose to act, on the one that found Benzion a very sick man, for humanitarian reasons. Benzion appealed to the Supreme Court twice in the past for a pardon on grounds of health. In both instances the court rejected his appeal because it was not convinced that he could not receive adequate medical treatment in prison.

According to Benzion, he entered prison “almost a healthy person except for a lung disease but subsequently suffered two strokes and developed a heart ailment and high blood pressure.

Benzion was freed this morning almost surreptitiously. He reportedly did not know himself of the pardon until yesterday. When newsmen were told that prison authorities were still waiting for a car to pick him up, Benzion was actually at his home. He said in a radio interview later that his main objective was to clear his name. He claimed to have new evidence from Switzerland disproving the charges against him and said he might demand a new trial.

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