The Swiss Federal Court has handed down a 12-month suspended sentence to an Israeli secret agent who was caught trying to bug the telephone of a Lebanese-born Swiss man two years ago. The verdict was welcomed by virtually everyone involved in the trial.This content was published on July 7, 2000 - 18:30
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, was quick to express his satisfaction at the outcome, and the fact that the agent would be able to return immediately to Israel.
"This was a fair verdict. The defence can live with this verdict," said defence lawyer, Ralph Zloczower, after the hearing. "Our client will leave Switzerland in the coming days."
The prosecution was equally satisfied. The public prosecutor, Félix Bänziger, said: "I'm very pleased the judgement has more or less followed our recommendations." Bänziger had called for a 15-month jail sentence.
The agent, who was tried under the pseudonym Isaac Bental, was also barred from Switzerland for five years, after he was found guilty of political espionage, acting illegally for a foreign country and entering the country under a false name.
It was widely expected that the court would hand down a suspended sentence to avoid further diplomatic difficulties, which strained Israeli-Swiss relations.
But the defence team was adamant that no deal had been done. "Courts in Switzerland are independent," Stefan Trechsel, a member of the defence team, told swissinfo. "I can't imagine that any kind of political deals could have had an effect on this verdict."
However, he said that while the defence was "generally satisfied", he was personally disappointed that the "court went along with the prosecutor's view too much".
Nevertheless, the presiding judge, Hans Wiprächtiger, described Bental's crimes as "considerable". He said the agent had "violated the sovereignty of Switzerland in an unrestrained and intolerable manner".
Bental, tried under an assumed name for his own safety, had admitted to the charges, but insisted he was acting out of patriotism and was combating terrorism. He also said he was merely carrying out orders.
The Mossad agent was arrested in the Berne suburb of Köniz in February 1998, when he and four others were caught trying to wiretap the telephone of a Swiss-Lebanese man, whom Israel suspected of having links to the Iranian-backed guerrilla group, Hezbollah.
The target of the wiretapping, Abdallah el-Zein, ran the local branch of Ahl El-Beit, a Shi'a Islam religious and cultural centre. Israel believes the organisation is a front for the recruitment of Hezbollah activists. Swiss police say they found no proof that the centre was connected to Hezbollah.
The two countries have pledged that the affair will not harm the normally friendly relations between them. However, at the time of Bental's arrest, Switzerland was at the height of its tortuous negotiations with Jewish groups over dormant Holocaust-era accounts, and the incident further strained bilateral.
The incident was also one in a series of bungled operations by the once-feared Israeli intelligence services. Both sides will be more than happy to have the incident cleared up and forgotten as soon as possible.
by Roy Probert
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