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Court denies Netanyahu request to skip trial opening

AFP logoAFP 5/20/2020 AFP
Benjamin Netanyahu et al. looking at the camera: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust © Oded Balilty Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust

An Israeli court on Wednesday denied a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be excused from attending the start of his impending corruption trial. 

The ruling by the Jerusalem District Court, where the first hearing is to be held on Sunday, cited a clause in Israeli criminal law stating that "a person may not be tried on criminal charges except in his presence".

Netanyahu's legal team on Tuesday asked the court to allow Netanyahu's absence from the formal reading of the charges against him, despite written objections by the state attorney's office. 

The premier's presence in the court requires five bodyguards, his lawyers wrote, meaning the hearing would not be able to take place "within the limitations set by the health ministry due to the coronavirus pandemic".

Netanyahu's lawyers insisted that Sunday's hearing was "technical" and there was "no need for the prime minister to attend".

The prosecution's real reason for insisting Netanyahu be in court was "a media campaign seeking to show the prime minister in the dock", the lawyers claimed in their request, seen by AFP.

The court's ruling on Wednesday, published by the justice ministry, was unequivocal.

"We reject the request of the petitioner to be absent from the reading (of the charges)," it said.

Netanyahu's trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust had been scheduled to start in March, but was postposed to May 24 due to lockdown measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Netanyahu denies allegations that he accepted improper gifts and sought to illegally trade favours in exchange for positive media coverage.

He is the first prime minister in Israel's history to be indicted while in office. 

The Jewish state's premier since 2009, Netanyahu extended his record tenure on Sunday when parliament swore in a new three-year coalition government to end more than 500 days of political deadlock.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, will lead the government for 18 months before vacating the premier's office for his former rival Benny Gantz. 

Netanyahu's trial, including all appeals, could take several years. 

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