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World - Middle East

Israel gripped by swirl surrounding treason trial

Reporters surround Manbar as he is led from the courtroom  

Probe launched into charges Netanyahu interfered in case

July 16, 1998
Web posted at: 10:04 p.m. EDT (0204 GMT)

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- An Israeli businessman was sentenced to 16 years in prison for treason Thursday, amid a swirl of allegations of sexual misconduct and political intrigue that reach to the very top of the Israeli government.

Nahum Manbar, 52, was convicted of selling materials to Iran that could be used to make chemical weapons. But the charges and countercharges emanating from his trial -- more than anything he did -- are rocking Israel.

Manbar's attorney, Amnon Zichroni, has alleged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contacted the presiding judge in the case, Amnon Straschnov, to lobby for a harsh sentence for Manbar.

CNN's Mike Hanna reports on the scandal allegations
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Zichroni also has alleged that a female member of his defense team, attorney Pninat Yanai, passed along privileged information about Manbar to Straschnov -- with whom, Zichroni claims, she was having a sexual affair. Yanai, who was fired from her duties, is also a friend of Netanyahu's spokesman.

Netanyahu, Straschnov and Yanai have denied the charges. But on Thursday, Attorney General Elkyakim Rubinstein asked Israeli police to begin a preliminary investigation into the allegations.

It was not clear whether that meant police would question the prime minister. But Netanyahu has pledged his cooperation, saying, "There is nothing to investigate."

Netanyahu pleased with sentence

Straschnov refused a request by Zichroni that he withdraw from the case. In passing sentence Thursday, the judge said Manbar sacrificed Israeli's security "on the altar of unfettered greed." He could have sent Manbar to prison for life.

Manbar insists that his business dealings with Iran, which prosecutors say netted him $18 million, were sanctioned by Israel's intelligence community. As he was led out of court Thursday, he shouted, "There will be an appeal."

Pninat Yanai is accused of having an affair with the presiding judge in the case  

Netanyahu expressed pleasure after the sentencing, saying Manbar had committed "heinous crimes" by supplying Iran with material "to rain down chemical death on Israel's cities, on our citizens and children."

In a statement to the court, Straschnov strongly denied that he had any improper relationship with Yanai or that he had any contact with Netanyahu during or after Manbar's trial.

"Another lie that was leveled against me was punctured and shown for what it was -- an abysmal defamation without any grounding in fact," said Netanyahu, who blames his political opponents for the controversy.

Yanai, who admits to being a friend of the judge, says the charges were made up by a jilted ex-boyfriend trying to win her back. And she claims Zichroni tried to get her to use her friendship with Straschnov to help Manbar's case.

Correspondent Mike Hanna and Reuters contributed to this report.

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