Israeli secret agent goes on trial in Switzerland

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

The Federal Court has begun hearing charges against an Israeli secret agent, suspected of carrying out illegal acts against a foreign state and using a false passport. The identity of the agent will not be disclosed to the trial judges.

This content was published on July 3, 2000 - 16:28

The Federal Court agreed to allow the agent to stand trial under the pseudonym, Issac Bental. The move is 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.

The case dates back to February 1998, when five Israeli citizens, three men and two women, were arrested in the middle of the night at an apartment block in the suburbs of Berne.

The five, who were initially suspected of breaking and entering, managed to fool the police into believing that their presence in the building was completely innocent, and four were released within hours.

However, the man who remained in detention was found to be in possession of sophisticated electronic listening equipment as well as several different passports.

Following an investigation, the Swiss federal police accused the Israelis of trying to bug the telephone of a Swiss-Lebanese citizen thought to have links with the Hezbollah guerrilla group. He has since dropped his prosecution.

The agent's arrest rapidly turned into a full-scale diplomatic incident between Switzerland and Israel. 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.

After 65 days of detention and interrogation, Swiss police released the Mossad agent on bail. Israel paid SFr3 million for his release and promised he would return to Switzerland for trial.

The danger for the prosecution now is that the Mossad agent will 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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