Spy trial closes in Cyprus, but Mossad receives blemish

JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 (JTA) — An alleged spying affair that embarrassed Israel and strained its relations with Cyprus is apparently drawing to a close — with all references to espionage being dropped. Just the same, the case may go down as a less than inspiring moment in the annals of Israel’s Mossad foreign intelligence service. Over the weekend, Cyprus decided to drop spy charges against two Israelis arrested there last November in exchange for their admitting to lesser offenses. The decision came after Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, traveled to Cyprus two weeks ago to negotiate a plea bargain, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported. On Monday, the court sentenced the two Israelis to three years’ imprisonment, the maximum time for the lesser offenses with which they were charged, including the possession of illegal communications equipment. The prosecutor, who confirmed Rubinstein’s visit, acknowledged last week that the evidence did not present clear proof of espionage. Earlier in the trial, the prosecutor agreed to reduce the charges, dropping an indictment of spying for a third country. That charge could have carried a maximum 10-year sentence. The two defendants, Yigal Damari and Udi Argov, were arrested three months ago near a Cypriot military installation in the fishing village of Zigi. When the men were arrested, police found listening equipment, a laptop computer, two cellular telephones, five recording devices and eight maps of Cyprus in their apartment. Israeli media reported at the time of the arrests that if the two were on an intelligence operation, it was almost thoroughly bungled, particularly given their conspicuous presence in the small village. Following the arrests, Israel dispatched various political and security officials to Cyprus to try to negotiate the suspects’ release. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the time that Israel would do whatever it could to bring the two men home. Mossad officials conveyed messages to Cyprus to dispel suspicions that the two were spying on behalf of Turkey or gathering information on Cypriot military installations. In the wake of the arrests, a senior Mossad official in the operations branch announced his retirement. The Cyprus affair was the latest in a string of botched Mossad operations. In October 1997 two Mossad agents were arresting in Jordan after their failed attempt to kill a Hamas political leader on the streets of Amman. And in February 1998, five Mossad operatives were caught red-handed while attempting to bug an apartment near the Swiss capital of Bern. The apartment belonged to a businessman with suspected links to the Islamic fundamentalist group Hezbollah.

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