Swiss court hears charges against Israeli secret agent

Mossad's defence lawyer, Ralph Zloczower (centre), arriving at the Federal Court Keystone

An Israeli secret agent has gone on trial in Switzerland charged with carrying out illegal acts for a foreign state and using a false passport. The Federal Court has allowed the man to stand trial under a pseudonym.

This content was published on July 4, 2000 - 07:25

The Mossad agent identified himself as "Isaac Bental", saying through an interpreter that he could not give the court his real name because it would jeopardise his personal safety.

The Federal Court has allowed him to stand trial under a false name in a concession to the Israeli authorities, who want to prevent information about the secret service, Mossad, from entering the public domain.

He faces charges of carrying out illegal acts against a foreign state, and of entering Switzerland using a false passport. The hearing is thought to be the first in which a Mossad agent has gone on trial outside Israel.

"Bental" was caught red-handed in an apartment building near Berne in February 1998, while trying to tap the phone of a Swiss-Lebanese citizen, thought to have links with the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Swiss police also detained four other Mossad agents but later released them. Bental remained in detention after he was found to be in possession of sophisticated electronic listening equipment as well as several different passports.

The Swiss authorities later allowed him to return home after the Israeli government paid bail of SFr3 million and promised he would return to Switzerland for trial.

In court Bental confirmed he was still working for Mossad but refused to answer questions about the agency's activities.

He testified he had joined Mossad for idealistic reasons, and said he had never been involved in any operations in which people were harmed or killed.

He said he had received orders from Israel to wiretap the telephone of a Hezbollah faction. "We wanted to find out what Hezbollah was doing in Switzerland," he said.

At the time of his arrest, the incident led to a severe straining of diplomatic relations between Israel and Switzerland. The Swiss authorities demanded an apology from the Israelis, and this was grudgingly forthcoming.

But the Swiss were also anxious to avoid a row with Israel because of the controversy over Switzerland's handling of dormant bank accounts belonging to Holocaust victims. At the time, the Swiss government and Swiss banks were involved in tortuous negotiations with the World Jewish Congress over a financial settlement.

There remains a possibility that the Mossad agent may claim diplomatic immunity. If that happens, the trial will collapse, since foreign nationals with diplomatic immunity cannot be tried before a Swiss court.

The case has also raised difficult questions about the effectiveness of Switzerland's various police forces. It is still not clear who was responsible for releasing the other four Mossad agents.

One rumour lays the blame at the door of the Swiss federal police, saying they ordered their cantonal colleagues to let the agents go to prevent a diplomatic row with Israel.

Another rumour says the cantonal police did not receive information early enough from the federal branch about the true identity of the four, and therefore had no option but to release them.

swissinfo with agencies

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