Israel's Lieberman pleads 'not guilty' as graft trial starts

AFP , Sunday 17 Feb 2013

The hearing in the trial of the former Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of fraud was adjourned until 25 April

The trial of Israel's former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of fraud and breach of trust opened at a Jerusalem court on Sunday in a case which will decide the former nightclub bouncer's political future.

Wearing a dark-blue suit and white shirt, Lieberman was silent as he entered the courtroom and did not speak to waiting reporters, an AFP correspondent at Jerusalem Magistrate's Court said.

In a brief opening procedure, the charges against Lieberman were read out, with the former minister pleading not guilty. The hearing was then adjourned until April 25.

Lieberman is accused of having intervened to try and secure an ambassadorial posting for an Israeli diplomat who provided him with confidential information about a police investigation into his affairs, in an incident dating back to 2008 when he was between cabinet portfolios and serving only as an MP.

The case against Lieberman is being heard by three judges, which commentators said was likely to make the prospect of a possible subsequent appeal harder for his lawyers than if a single judge was on the bench.

In mid-December, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said he was charging Lieberman with two offences over alleged attempts to help the career of former envoy to Belarus, Zeev Ben Aryeh.

Lieberman immediately resigned his cabinet post but retains his status as an MP, expressing confidence that he will be cleared of all charges and will return to his job as foreign minister.

According to the indictment, Lieberman was allegedly tipped off by Ben Aryeh that police had contacted their counterparts in Belarus for help with an inquiry into his affairs.

He is then suspected of seeking to reward Ben Aryeh with a posting to Latvia.

An outspoken hardliner who has been investigated by police several times since 1996, Lieberman denies the charges, saying he is eager to vindicate himself in court.

Among the witnesses due to appear is Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who heads the ministry's appointments committee. Lieberman allegedly failed to tell him that Ben Aryeh had informed him about the police probe.

Ben Aryeh is also expected to take the stand.

Lieberman's main concern will be to avoid a conviction including both a finding of "moral turpitude" and a prison sentence, which would bar him from serving as a minister for seven years.

"Lieberman has to be acquitted or, at the very least, to escape from being stained with moral turpitude," Maariv newspaper said.

"If the judges convict him of crimes of moral turpitude when they convict him of fraud and breach of trust over his role in the appointment of Zeev Ben Aryeh as the Israeli ambassador to Latvia, he will be forced to resign from the Knesset."

Despite his resignation from the foreign ministry, Lieberman remains head of the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu which ran on a joint list with the rightwing Likud of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, narrowly winning last month's general election.

The list won 31 seats in the 120-member parliament, and Netanyahu is currently trying to piece together a coalition government.

Lieberman's political future, however, will depend on the outcome of the trial.

Since Lieberman's resignation, Netanyahu has himself served as interim foreign minister but he is reportedly seeking to reinstate his ally once the legal proceedings are over.

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