Assassination inquiry focuses on Shin Bet

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JERUSALEM — The head of Israel's domestic intelligence service and six other senior security officials may be blamed for the security lapses that led to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The seven received warnings to that effect in letters sent Monday by the Shamgar commission of inquiry, the government-appointed panel investigating the assassination.

The letters were sent a day before the trial began for Yigal Amir, the 25-year-old law student who confessed to shooting Rabin after a Nov. 4 peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Amid heavy security and extensive media coverage, presiding Judge Edmund Levy read the charges in the 80-seat room in Tel Aviv District Court.

Amir, who said he killed Rabin because he believed the peace accord with the Palestinians endangered Jewish lives, has been charged with premeditated murder. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

However, Amir's plea will not be submitted and deliberations begun until Tuesday, Jan. 23, following the judge's agreement to give Amir's lawyers a month to review the evidence in the case.

Before the proceedings began, Levy directed comments to the journalists crowded into the courtroom. Levy said he would have preferred not to have such extensive coverage but recognized the "public importance of the case."

He criticized the media for already convicting Amir, and said his role was to ensure a fair trial and preservation of the rights of the accused.

Wearing a white shirt, Amir smiled periodically as the charges were being read. He is represented by two lawyers, Mordecai Offri and Yonatan Goldberg, an American immigrant who lives in the West Bank settlement Emanuel.

After granting a continuance, the three-judge court rejected a request to postpone the trial until the Shamgar commission investigating the assassination presents its findings.

The court also rejected a request to issue a restraining order against the televised broadcast of an amateur videotape that shows the assassination.

The commercial station Channel 2 broadcast the video Tuesday night, after purchasing the rights, along with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, for a sum reportedly nearing $400,000.

Yediot published a dramatic photograph Tuesday from the video. In a blurred freeze frame, a gunman is shown plunging forward with his arm outstretched close to Rabin. An apparent flash from the shot is touching Rabin's back.

The photographer, Roni Kempler, was interviewed during the show.

"I don't know why I focused on [Yigal Amir]. I guess I just had a bad feeling that something could happen. I told myself I was just being stupid," he said.

As part of its special broadcast, Channel 2 interviewer Rafi Reshef returned with Kempler to the site of the assassination to describe exactly what happened.

The videotape, submitted to police by the photographer after the assassination, is included in the prosecution's evidence.

Dozens of Israelis waited on line outside the courtroom Tuesday hoping to get a chance to see some of the proceedings inside.

Among the people waiting on line was a woman who traveled from Kiryat Shmona, the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation's sister city in the north.

"I have been saving clippings from the newspaper about the case," she told Israel Radio. "This was the prime minister. I am interested."

Meanwhile, the Shamgar commission's letters to the security officials have created a major stir here.

The head of the intelligence service — known as the General Security Service, or Shin Bet — was warned he could be held responsible if the commission found his agency had not prepared itself for an assassination attempt by Jewish extremists, Israel Radio reported.

The commission's deliberations were suspended until Sunday, Dec. 31, so the seven officials could "prepare for the continuation" of the deliberations, a Justice Ministry official said.

They are allowed to appear before the commission with an attorney, and have the right to cross-examine witnesses.