Sunday 5 October 2008

Justice for Deri

The District Court in Jerusalem ruled at the end of last week that Aryeh Deri should not be allowed to run in the upcoming election for Mayor of Jerusalem in November. This ruling is a victory for the rule of law and a defeat for corruption, so endemic in all levels of Israeli political life.

Deri, a former leader of the Shas Party and former Minister of Internal Affairs, was found guilty in 2000 on several charges of bribery. He was sentenced to four years in prison, which was later reduced to three years. He ultimately served two years of this sentence before being released in 2002.

When Deri was sentenced, the law that prevents citizens convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude from serving in a public position provided for an exclusion period of 6 years from the day of their release from prison. By the time Deri was released, the 6 year period had been extended to 7 years. This change formed the basis of Deri's appeal to the court, as a 6 year ban would have allowed him to run in the 2008 election. He put forward the argument that he should be subject to the laws in place at the time that he was convicted and sentenced. Any subsequent change to this affected him retroactively, and retroactive punishment is a concept not supported in law.

In dismissing Deri's petition to the court, Judge Moshe Sobel found that Deri was sentenced to 3 years in prison. If he had served his full term of imprisonment, even the previous period of 6 years would have prevented him from running in the upcoming election. His early parole, the judge ruled, could not have been foreseen. More important than this, the judge found that a crime of moral turpitude is not consistent with the moral level appropriate to holding public office. " Only when enough time has passed to blunt the impression created by a crime, will public confidence in elected officials be guaranteed", wrote Sobel.

Arye Deri was born in Morocco and arrived in Israel at the age of 9 years old. After receiving Rabbinical ordination, Deri was one of the founder members of the Shas party in 1984 under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Deri's charisma was precisely the type of attraction that the party needed in its quest to assist and uplift Israel's religious communities that originated in Arabic Middle Eastern countries. The party saw this population sector as downtrodden and abused by the Ashkenazi European elitests, who have dominated the country's Knesset and upper echelons of society since independence in 1948. Shas set about giving this underdog community pride, assistance and representation at the highest levels. Grass roots organisations were established to provide practical daily help to the working class people by providing daycare, religious learning institutions for children and food programs at highly subsidised rates. This, in turn, provided the popularity to allow the party to hold as many as 17 seats in the Knesset in the 1999 elections. As is the case with many of the minority parties in the Knesset, Shas has managed to extract significant value from successive governments in turn for agreeing to join the coalition. Inevitably, its power in the coalition has significantly exceeded its number of seats.

Unfortunately, no fewer than 6 Shas Members of the Knesset have been convicted of crimes involving bribery, forgery, fraud and obstruction of justice to name a few. This seems wholly inappropriate for any Knesset member, not least one that represents a party that bases its ideology on religious adherence to Jewish law.

Whilst fully supporting Judge Sobel's decision, I only half agree with his judgement. I don't believe that there is any amount of time that can pass to guarantee public confidence in elected officials after being convicted of a crime of this nature. In this respect, I agree with Haaretz's Ze'ev Segal when he writes, "Weighing the possibility of changing the existing law, so a public official who has been convicted of a serious crime involving government corruption (one that naturally carries with it a mark of moral turpitude) is permanently prohibited from holding a senior public position, is seemingly in order."

Adopting a lifetime ban from public positions will certainly give a crime of moral turpitude the appropriate level of seriousness and weighting that it requires. Whilst it is true that people can change their ways and rehabilitate themselves, the question is whether the public can afford to have people like Deri back on their books to risk further inappropriate behaviour. I believe that, for elected officials, it should be "one strike and you are out".

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