Trial of Israeli who aided Iran ends amid charges of scandal

JERUSALEM, July 16 (JTA) — The trial of an Israeli businessman has concluded amid charges of political and sexual misconduct, but even after the verdict came down accusations continued to fly. The Tel Aviv District Court sentenced Nahum Manbar on Thursday to 16 years in prison for selling chemical weapons agents to Iran. The judge in the case, Amnon Strashnov, said Manbar had sacrificed Israel’s security “on the altar of unfettered greed.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded the verdict, saying Manbar had committed “heinous crimes.” Manbar, who during the early 1990s sold Iran chemicals that could be used both in agriculture and in making poison gas, had faced life imprisonment. The court refrained from sending Manbar to jail for a longer period, because it “could not ignore the norms which were in practice at the time,” the judge said. The specific reasons remained classified, but one of Manbar’s main defense arguments was that he had notified Israel’s secret service of his contacts with Iran. Although the court did not hand down the maximum sentence, lead defense counsel Amnon Zichroni said he would appeal the sentence to the Supreme Court. In the closing days of the trial, the proceedings took on a distinct political overtone, with some members of the opposition charging that Netanyahu had contacted the judge repeatedly during the trial in an effort to ensure Manbar’s conviction. Earlier this week, Netanyahu flatly denied that he had improperly interfered in the trial. Even after the trial ended, coalition and opposition members exchanged blows over its political implications, with Netanyahu charging that members of the opposition would stop at nothing to besmirch his reputation. The judge, too, was the focus of an attack in the trial’s closing days. In an effort to block sentencing, Zichroni appealed to the High Court of Justice, claiming that he had evidence of improper conduct in the trial. Zichroni, who had leveled the initial charges against Netanyahu, charged that the judge was romantically involved with lawyer Pninat Yanai of the defense team, and that she had supplied him with information about the defense team’s strategy in the trial. Strashnov and Yanai denied the charges. On Tuesday, the high court rejected Zichroni’s attempts to stop the trial. As he read out the sentence, Strashnov referred to the welter of accusations, saying they were “much ado about nothing.” At a news conference, Netanyahu attacked Zichroni, saying he should be ashamed for his behavior in the case. Netanyahu also attacked members of the opposition for having exploited the case to attack him personally. He referred specifically to Labor Knesset member Nissim Zvilli, who was the first to publicize the accusations the defense lawyer made before the high court Monday. Zvilli also faced criticism from within his own party, where some of his colleagues charged that by presenting false accusations against the premier, Zvilli had weakened the party’s legitimate offensive against Netanyahu on crucial issues such as the peace process and the economy. Opposition leader Ehud Barak weighed in, saying it was “unacceptable” to be involved in criticism of the premier that is based on “gossip.” But Netanyahu, too, appeared not to be above using the trial to make some political accusations. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Netanyahu privately blamed former premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for having failed to order the arrest of Manbar, saying they had failed to do so because of “Manbar’s ties with the Labor Party.” A furious Peres called Netanyahu and told him that he and Rabin had sought to press charges against Manbar, but that there had been insufficient evidence against him at the time. Following Peres’ call, Netanyahu’s press adviser announced that the premier had no complaints against Rabin or Peres where the Manbar case was concerned.

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