Ex-Israeli president to serve 7 years for rape

November 10, 2011 - 4:15 AM

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered former President Moshe Katsav to spend seven years in prison after rejecting the disgraced politician's appeal of a rape conviction and other sex crimes.

The decision capped a long and sordid chapter in Israeli politics that captured the country's attention for more than five years and ended with Katsav becoming the highest-ranking Israeli official ever sentenced to prison. He is to start serving his sentence on Dec. 7.

The ruling was seen as a major triumph for women's rights — and specifically, rape victims' rights — and for a legal system willing to take on some of the country's most influential figures.

Katsav, who has proclaimed his innocence throughout the affair, sat stone-faced throughout Thursday's ruling, briefly smiling wryly as it became clear his appeal was being rejected. He left the courtroom surrounded by supporters and made no comment to reporters.

Katsav, 65, was convicted last December of raping a former employee when he was a Cabinet minister and of sexually harassing two other women during his term as president from 2000 to 2007. He received a seven-year prison sentence in March, but was allowed to stay out of jail pending his appeal.

The court had not been expected to overturn the conviction, though experts had said there was a chance the sentence would be revised. Reading their decision, the three-judge panel said Katsav's testimony had not been credible and accused him of exploiting his status as a high public official.

Katsav's attorney, Avigdor Feldman, said he "did not agree" with the sentence and that the judges had believed one of the plaintiffs despite serious holes in her testimony.

"They would have believed her if she said the rape occurred on Venus," Feldman said.

Katsav has maintained he was the victim of a political witch hunt.

Israel's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, typically filled by a respected elder statesman who is capable of rising above politics and serving as the country's moral compass.

The case against Katsav, which broke in 2006 after he told police one of his accusers was trying to extort money from him, shocked Israelis by portraying a man widely seen as a bland official as a predatory boss who repeatedly used his authority over female employees to force sexual favors.

Katsav reluctantly resigned two weeks before his seven-year term was to expire in 2007 under a plea bargain that would have allowed him to escape jail time.

He was replaced by Nobel peace laureate and former prime minister Shimon Peres, whom he had bested in the 2000 presidential race, decided in the Israeli parliament. Then, in a dramatic reversal, Katsav rejected the plea bargain, vowing to prove his innocence in court.

Judges, however, were not convinced, accused him of lying and sentenced him to jail in March. His long record of public service did not factor in his favor, they said, instead accusing him of exploiting his lofty positions to become a sexual offender.

Katsav's conviction was a stunning fall from grace for a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a symbol of success for Mizrahi Jews, those of Middle Eastern descent who for decades were an underclass in Israel. The country's elite has long been dominated by Jews of European origin.

In one of the more bizarre moments in the case, Katsav accused prosecutors and the media of plotting his demise and accused them of being out to destroy him because he didn't belong to the European-descended elite.

After his sentencing in March, one of Katsav's lawyers said the former president was so distraught over his impending prison sentence that he was at risk of committing suicide.

The verdict against Katsav was seen as a victory for women's rights in a decades-long struggle to chip away at the nation's macho culture, which once permitted political and military leaders great liberties.

Miriam Schler, director of the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, told Israeli Channel 10 news that Katsav's sentence was "very meaningful."

"This is a day with a very important message to rape victims in the state of Israel, that the justice system can be trusted," Schler said.

It also highlighted the justice system's increased willingness to prosecute powerful figures who see themselves as above the law.

In recent years, Israel has seen a former finance minister sent to prison for embezzling funds and a justice minister convicted of forcibly kissing a female soldier. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign to face corruption charges. His trial is still in court.