Israeli newspaper exec arrested on suspicion of hiring a hit man

JERUSALEM — Ofer Nimrodi, publisher of the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, was arrested last week on suspicion of hiring a hit man to murder three people.

He is suspected of being involved in a conspiracy to murder Ha'aretz publisher Amos Schocken, Yediot Achronot publisher Arnon Mozes and Ya'acov Tsur, the state's witness against Nimrodi in a 1995 wiretapping affair

Ma'ariv, Ha'aretz and Yediot Achronot are Israel's largest daily Hebrew newspapers.

Nimrodi is also suspected of offering bribes to people involved in the wiretapping affair, for which Tsur is serving a prison term.

Sources close to the investigation said police have compiled strong evidence regarding plans to kill Tsur, but believe that information relating to Schocken and Mozes is based on hearsay.

On Tuesday of last week, detectives escorted Nimrodi from the back entrance of his Savyon home for questioning as police conducted a five-hour search of his house and garden. They also searched his office in the Ma'ariv building. Detectives took away several bags and boxes of documents from both sites.

Nimrodi's arrest came less then 24 hours after police questioned his lawyer, Dan Avi-Yitzhak, whom police suspect of interfering with the investigation. Police also searched Avi-Yitzhak's Jerusalem home and took away documents.

"The fact that a lawyer is questioned and defense files confiscated from his office before his client's arrest should concern every citizen. Police confiscated judicial and defense files of my client, Ofer Nimrodi," Avi-Yitzhak said in a statement.

The Petah Tikva Magistrate's Court later ordered police to return most of Avi-Yitzhak's documents and tapes.

Handcuffed and surrounded by detectives, Nimrodi looked pale and tired and refused to talk to reporters at his hearing on Wednesday of last week.

At that hearing, police charged that Nimrodi paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money to keep figures involved in the 1995 wiretapping scandal from testifying against him.

The scandal involved allegations that the senior executives of Ma'ariv and Yediot Achronot had been illegally wiretapping each other's offices and those of other journalists as part of a circulation war. Yediot Achronot's editor-in-chief at the time, Moshe Vardi, eventually resigned.

Police also suspect Nimrodi of bribing police officers to supply him with details of the current investigation.

According to police, Nimrodi allegedly paid Rafi Pridan, a private investigator and recently turned state's witness, $85,000 to plan Tsur's murder and promised to give him another $600,000 once the job was done.

It was also alleged that Nimrodi paid Pridan $470,000 for a tape recording of a conversation Nimrodi held with Pridan, persuading him not to testify against him. Pridan allegedly informed Nimrodi of the tape's existence and said he had other copies, demanding payment in exchange for them. The money was allegedly disguised as a loan and given to Pridan by lawyer Shuki Stein,

In a related development, Ha'aretz publisher Schocken admitted that he also paid Pridan hush money to prevent him from testifying in the libel suit Nimrodi filed against the Schocken group's Jerusalem newspaper Kol Ha'ir.

According to reports, Schocken paid Pridan $100,000 in return for information that helped reinforce his stand in court, along with an affidavit. Afterward, Nimrodi paid Pridan the same amount to withdraw his affidavit.

Judge Yeshayahu Schneller rejected a request this week from Avi-Yitzhak to release Nimrodi with restrictions, such as being watched by paid security guards and being barred from meeting with outsiders.

Schneller said his decision to extend Nimrodi's detention into next week was not only to prevent him from interfering with the police investigation but also to serve as a moral lesson that "the judgment of a rich person is no different than that of any other suspect."